Why Saudi Arabia is about to judge NZ's human rights record

Justice Minister Andrew Little expects New Zealand's next United Nations human rights review, being partly overseen by Saudi Arabia, will show improvements from 2014.

Every five years member countries go before the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, to defend their human rights record and give an update on what's been achieved since last time, in what's known as the Universal Periodic Review.

The last time New Zealand was judged, the UN came up with 155 recommendations on ways we could improve our human rights record, mostly focused on indigenous rights, inequality, child poverty, refugees and the response to the 2010/11 Christchurch earthquakes.

Mr Little says he'll be in front of the UN panel next week to explain what's happened since then.

"It's also an opportunity for me to update them on the things that this Government specifically is doing around child poverty, the fact this year will be our first 'wellbeing Budget'," he told RadioLIVE on Friday.

"And then the constitutional stuff around what we're doing with the Bill of Rights, and creating this obligation on Parliament if the courts rule that a law breaches the Bill of Rights, that Parliament actually has to do something about it."

Focuses this year are likely to again be child poverty, Treaty rights and New Zealand's efforts to help refugees and asylum seekers, but Mr Little wants to talk up the Government's efforts on criminal justice reform too.

Prison numbers hit new highs under the previous National-led Government, but the coalition has talked of trying to cut it by as much as 30 percent, whilst lowering crime rates at the same time.

Mr Little says Māori are still over-represented on the inside, which the UN pointed out in 2014.

"New Zealand on the world stage is regarded as an honest broker, somebody that takes seriously the whole issue about international obligations and commitments. Our reputation is very important - us seeing to uphold the conventions and the commitments we've entered into is very important.

"We're doing our best, we don't get everything right, we're not perfect by any stretch. But we want to lead the pack in terms of upholding and delivering on people's human rights - that gives us leverage for other things overseas."

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub.

As for Christchurch, he'll talk about the coalition's new initiatives to break the long-running insurance deadlock.

"This Government has set up a couple of institutions to resolve the outstanding insurance claims so that 2500-odd people can get on with their lives."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is also off to Switzerland next week, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The judges

According to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR), the five-yearly reviews are conducted by its 47 members, but any UN member state can make submissions.

Each review is organised by three states chosen at random - for New Zealand this time around, they will be Brazil, Slovakia and Saudi Arabia.

The final report on New Zealand's human rights record in 2019 will be prepared by those three nations, known as the 'troika', with assistance from the UNHCR.

The recommendations are not legally binding.

Saudi Arabia has been widely criticised over its human rights record, particularly in regards to women. Recently the Muslim nation has come under fire over the death of a journalist in its consulate in Turkey.

Brazil recently elected far-right former solider Jair Bolsonaro as President, raising fears of a crackdown on minority groups