The Human Rights Commission

Catherine Harris at Stuff reports:

Moves are afoot to abolish the title of , which minority groups and critics say could downgrade the position’s importance.

An amendment to the Human Rights Act introduced to Parliament late last year would abolish the title, although the duties would still be done by a human rights commissioner. …

Justice and Ethnic Affairs Minister Judith Collins said the bill would give commissioners more flexibility as they grappled with a wider range of issues not covered under old legislation.

“The leadership role the commission has in protecting and promoting race relations and equal employment opportunities will remain the same. There will still be fulltime commissioners leading these areas of work.”

I tend to be supportive of the change, and will outline why.

First let me say I am a supporter of there being a . Sure there may be individual cases where I disagree with a Commissioner on an issue, but I think it is a good thing to have a body dedicated to protecting and advocating for our rights.

It is worth noting that rights are not absolute, and sometimes is a balance. The right to free speech is weighed against the right to not have someone foster racial hatred, as (for example) the Nazis did. The right of an owner to run their business the way they want is balanced against the rights of employees not be sexually harassed at work.

The Commission currently has eight Commissioners, five of whom are part-time. There is a Chief Commissioner, a Equal Opportunities Commissioner, a Race Relations Commissioner and five others.

Now by signalling two areas out to have a dedicated Commissioner, you basically say these types of rights are more important than others. Hence you then get demands for a disabled rights commissioner, a sexual orientation commissioner etc etc. I’d even considered advocating for a Free Speech Commissioner. I am sure some would like a religious discrimination commissioner too, to protect rights of religiou, s minorities.

The trouble with that approach, is you create silos within the human rights arena, and have the perception of some rights are more important than others.

So I think a better model is to have one Chief Commissioner, and all the other Commissioners are general commissioners. Now certainly within that the Chief Commissioner would allocate commissioners to act in certain areas of expertise or specialisation. The idea is that the Chief Commissioner would have more flexibility,  and as certain areas of human rights gain prominence, be able to allocate more resources to them without needing to change the law.

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, but think the mooted change is superior to the status quo.

If however the status quo prevails, then I might start lobbying for there to be a Free Speech Commissioner – someone to argue for the rights of individual and the media to free speech, to advocate that  copyright laws should not stop  satire and parody, that privacy laws should not stop the truth coming out, that electoral laws should encourage public participation and that defamation laws should not be used to stifle fair criticism.

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