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United Nations concerned at high rates of juvenile and Māori imprisonment

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The United Nations Committee against Torture has called on the New Zealand Government to reduce the disproportionately high number of Māori in prisons and to improve the conditions of people in detention, noting that transformational change is needed.

It also expressed concern about the use of pretrial detention, and lack of time limits for pretrial detention. 

Addressing issues in juvenile justice, and fully implementing the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care’s recommendations, are also included in the UN Committee’s findings.

The Committee’s recommendations have been welcomed by Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission, the Ombudsman New Zealand, Mana Mokopuna Children and Young People’s Commission, and the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments, whose representatives presented to the UN Committee in July as part of the National Preventive Mechanism.

The Government has one year to report back to the UN Committee on its progress on the four priority recommendations contained in the Committee’s report.

Te Amokapua Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt says the root causes of high incarceration rates of our Indigenous People can be found – in great part - in the suppression they experienced and continue to experience through colonisation and its impacts.

“It is vital that our justice system doesn’t perpetuate this intergenerational harm on Māori.”

Hunt says the transformation of our criminal justice system is overdue and action is urgently needed.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says the UN’s findings echo the concerns he has repeatedly raised in many of his inspection reports, including in prisons and health and disability facilities.

“I agree with the UN Committee which highlighted that overcrowding, poor conditions and staff shortages remain a problem in many places of detention. The committee also criticised the use of spit hoods and pepper spray.

“The fact the UN is recommending urgent change must be taken seriously by the New Zealand Government. These concerns are not new but they are serious. I am committed to monitoring the issues raised by the UN Committee, including critical areas like the provision of appropriate care in places of detention and the use of harmful practices such as use of force, restraints, and solitary confinement.”

Chief Children’s Commissioner, Mana Mokopuna Judge Frances Eivers says “the UN calls again on our government to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, in line with the Convention Against Torture, and to end the practice of remanding children into custody.”

Eivers also urges an end to the use of secure care and the use of force, including restraints in youth justice residences.

“Our monitoring work as a National Preventative Mechanism consistently shows concerns about the way our justice system works for young people, especially mokopuna Māori who continue to be disproportionately represented.

What was really apparent through the hearings at the United Nations and the subsequent recommendations is that it serves as a pipeline to prison.”

Under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, combined with the Crimes of Torture Act 1989, four NPM monitoring agencies undertake regular visits to places of detention, aimed at preventing torture and ill-treatment including in prisons, police cells, military detention, health facilities and child and youth residences. As the central NPM, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission coordinates the monitoring agencies and liaises between the NPM, the Government and UN bodies.

Editor’s Notes

  • The NPM consists of five agencies, including Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission, the Ombudsman New Zealand, Mana Mokopuna Children and Young People’s Commission, the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments Ombudsman, and the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA).
  • Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo, the Chief Children’s Commissioner Judge Frances Eivers, the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments Alec Shariff, and representatives from the Ombudsman New Zealand, presented to the UN Committee in their capacity as NPM and National Human Rights Institution. The IPCA did not attend the UN Committee review in July.  
  • The New Zealand Government signed OPCAT in 2007. Unlike other human rights treaty processes which deal with human rights violations after they have happened, OPCAT is primarily concerned with prevention.
  • The full findings of the Committee against Torture are available here:
  • The Committee has asked the New Zealand Government to report back on priority areas, including conditions of detention and Māori incarceration rates, by 28 July 2024. New Zealand will next go before the Committee in 2027.
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