Sunday, May 26, 2024

Human Rights Act change to protect religious communities

The Government has today announced it will move to ensure religious communities feel safe and welcome in New Zealand, with an amendment to the Human Rights Act.

After receiving more than 19,000 submissions on six proposals, the Government says it will make one change to address incitement towards religious communities while asking for further work to be done alongside a wider range of groups going forward.

This change will be undertaken in as part of Government’s response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain in 2019.

“New Zealanders were horrified at the events that played out in Christchurch in March 2019 and we will never forget the 51 victims, the survivors and their loved ones who suffered an act of extreme hate, because of their religious belief,” said Justice Minister, Kiri Allan.

“Everybody in New Zealand deserves to be safe from this kind of violence. The Government will expand the existing legal protections that have been in place since 1993 to also include our religious communities through amendments to the Human Rights Act.”

Currently, under the Human Rights Act 1993, it is illegal to publish or distribute threatening, abusive, or insulting words likely to ‘excite hostility against’ or ‘bring into contempt’ any group on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. Those grounds will now be extended, in both the civil (section 61) and criminal (section 131) provisions, to cover religious belief.

“This change will protect more groups from harm and strengthen social cohesion in Aotearoa New Zealand,” Minister Allan said.

The Government has also asked Te Aka Matua o te Ture – The Law Commission to undertake an independent and thorough first principles review of legal responses to hate-motivated offending, and of speech that expresses hostility towards, or contempt for, people who share a common characteristic. This will include whether further protections should be afforded to specific groups, including the Rainbow and disabled communities.

“These issues are complicated and the review will ensure any further changes to the incitement provisions meet society’s expectations and needs,” the Minister said.

“As demonstrated many times previously, such as with abortion law, the Law Commission is well equipped to take on a complex and sensitive issue, and carefully consider how the law should be shaped in response to it.”

A Bill will be introduced and is intended to be passed in the current Parliamentary term to make the specific changes to the Act regarding religious belief. It will be subject to a full select committee process, she said.

“Until the Law Commission has done that work, there will be no changes to the definition of groups protected from discrimination, or any changes to how the existing legal regime against incitement operates in terms of thresholds, offences or penalties, as originally proposed.”

“Some of the debate on this topic over the last year been disappointing, and at times deliberately divisive and misleading, particularly in regard to the proposals that were out for consultation. This is not, and never has been, about the Government wanting to restrict free speech.

“Given this is a targeted change aimed at tackling an immediate gap identified by the Royal Commission, I hope to see all parties across Parliament consider their position on the legislation carefully and responsibly,” Ms Allan said.

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