Aotearoa is in the grips of a human rights crisis and it’s time to amend the Bill of Rights Act to include fundamental rights, argues Katharine Cresswell Riol

The recent call by the Human Rights Commission to recognise adequate housing as a human right is significant. It follows a visit by Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, to Aotearoa in 2020. In her final report she concluded, “What’s happening here is not actually a housing crisis. What you have happening here is a human rights crisis.”

But our human rights crisis doesn’t only concern a deficiency in housing: it also consists of household food insecurity and paltry benefit payments. Therefore, it’s vital that the Human Rights Commission doesn’t limit its focus to adequate housing, but also pushes for all fundamental human rights, including the human rights to adequate food and social security.

This Labour Government has wilfully dismissed such domestic human rights obligations and ignored multiple reports that have disclosed the daily hardships of Kiwis.

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But previously, Aotearoa wasn’t afraid to show its support for such basic rights. In 1948, it was one of 48 states to vote in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although this document is heralded for demonstrating the importance of all human rights, certain rights took priority. This group of rights is called civil and political rights, and includes freedom from discrimination, freedom of religion, free expression, and the rights to vote, privacy and peaceful assembly.

On the other hand, the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights within the declaration was a source of controversy. This group of rights includes the rights to adequate housing, food and social security, as well as education and health. The main reason these rights faced such strong opposition was because this was the start of the Cold War, and they were supported by the Communist Bloc.

But it was an Aotearoa Labour Party prime minister, Peter Fraser, and his colleagues, Walter Nash and Carl Berendsen, who successfully supported the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights into the declaration, much to the frustration of their Western colleagues.

The current Labour Government doesn’t share Fraser’s enthusiasm for such human rights. You need look no further than the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA): even though the main reason given for the creation of BORA was that all fundamental rights and freedoms needed to be fully protected within Aotearoa, it only includes civil and political rights.

The need for the state to amend BORA and include both groups of human rights has been brought up time and time again within UN recommendations. In 2013, the Constitutional Advisory Panel also advocated that economic, social and cultural rights, along with property and environmental rights, be added to BORA in its report, “New Zealand’s Constitution: A Report on a Conversation”.

The current Government’s response was that, after considering the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s report, it believes the objective of public engagement, awareness and discussion has been achieved. No further action will be taken.

It’s vital that adequate housing is recognised as a human right, but, ultimately, to realise one right, you need to realise all rights. Take housing and food. Affordable housing is a major reason why people suffer from hunger and need to resort to foodbanks. After paying the rent or mortgage, low- to middle-income households are often left with insufficient funds to meet basic needs like food.

BORA is an important part of the country’s human rights framework. Including the rights to adequate housing, food and social security would guarantee access to these fundamental needs and assist in reducing unemployment, child poverty, and the gap between the rich and poor.

It would signify a commitment to equality, solidarity and social integration. It would provide a new conception of poverty and challenge the impacts of the regressive welfare reform of the 1980s and ‘90s. It would challenge the imbalance of power and shift the burden of responsibility for poverty onto the government.

Aotearoa used to be a world leader in human rights and there’s no reason why it can’t be again. We’re in a position to ensure that the basic needs and human rights of everyone in this country are realised.

Katharine Cresswell Riol is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, specialising in social justice and the human right to adequate food.

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