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Civil & Political Rights:

Civil and Political Rights

Desired Outcomes

Everybody enjoys civil and political rights. Mechanisms to regulate and arbitrate people’s rights in respect of each other are trustworthy.


The enjoyment of civil and political rights is crucial to people’s ability to participate in society, make choices about their lives and live with dignity.

Civil and political rights fall into two broad categories. The first requires that people are protected from interference or abuse of power by others. The second requires that society is organised in a way that enables all people to develop to their full potential.63

Rights are defined in various international treaties and in domestic legislation. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 sets out many rights New Zealanders enjoy. These include rights to life and security, voting rights, and rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, thought, conscience, religion and belief. They also include rights to freedom from discrimination, and various rights relating to justice and criminal procedures. Other laws, such as the Privacy Act 1993, also provide protection for specific rights.

The relationship between Māori and the Crown is guided by the Treaty of Waitangi.

New Zealand has also signed six core United Nations treaties, covering: civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the elimination of racial discrimination; the elimination of discrimination against women; the rights of children; and protection against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.

Civil and political rights are important for wellbeing in many ways. At a fundamental level, they protect people’s lives and their physical wellbeing (eg by recognising rights to freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest).

Wellbeing depends on people having a sense of choice or control over their lives, and on being reasonably able to do the things they value. This is only possible if people can exercise the many rights referred to above.64 People’s ability to take part in society, and their senses of belonging and identity, also depend on the exercise of these rights.


New Zealand is internationally recognised as having an excellent human rights record.65 The court system is independent and courts can enforce the rights affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, although there is no power to strike down legislation inconsistent with the Act. Other institutions exist to protect people from government power (examples include the Privacy Commissioner and the Ombudsmen) or to help people resolve issues of unlawful discrimination (such as the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Review Tribunal). New Zealand regularly reports to the United Nations on its record of protecting rights.

However, the direct measurement of civil and political rights is not a simple matter.

This chapter uses four indicators to show how New Zealand's formal commitments to civil and political rights are reflected in reality. They are: voter turnout, the representation of women in government, perceived discrimination and perceived corruption.

A fundamental right in any democracy is the right to vote. Voter turnout figures provide an indication of the confidence the population has in, and the importance the population attaches to, the nation’s political institutions. High voluntary voter turnout rates show people see these institutions as relevant and meaningful to them, and they believe their individual vote is important.

An effective and relevant political system should broadly reflect the society it represents. The second indicator measures the proportion of women in elected positions in government.

Equality before the law and freedom from unlawful discrimination are fundamental principles of democratic societies. According to the Human Rights Commission, discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently from another person in the same or similar circumstances, although not all forms of discrimination are unlawful.66 Measuring the extent to which New Zealanders actually experience discrimination is problematic. Research suggests a significant proportion of people who experience discrimination will not make a complaint.67 Perceived discrimination is a subjective measure of people’s views about the level of discrimination against different groups in New Zealand society.

Corruption undermines the democratic process and the rule of law. It is difficult to measure levels of corruption by reference to the number of prosecutions or court cases as this will, to some extent, be driven by the efficient functioning of the justice system. The fourth indicator measures the level of perceived corruption among politicians and public officials.