The examination of New Zealand at the United Nations

Last month the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities examined New Zealand’s progress on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A delegation from New Zealand, led by Minister for Disability Issues Hon Poto Williams, travelled to Geneva to present to the Committee and answer questions.

The NZ delegation was made up of seven representatives from various government agencies, including four staff from Whaikaha. The ODI’s Director, Brian Coffey was one of them, and here’s what he took away from the examination.

It was a brilliant team effort that I believe spoke honestly to the work and progress achieved across government on disability rights and issues.

Our civil society colleagues from various Disabled People’s Organisations, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman who were also present respected our approach. Within the examination process they fulfilled their role as advocates mand informants. Their role continues to be vital in enacting the demand side on disability policy and services. They provide voice for those who potentially benefit or otherwise from the work of government in disability policy and disability services. They keep us honest and demand that we do more and not be too satisfied with what we think we have achieved.  

Some of the New Zealand delegation in Geneva. All are formally dressed, and in a

I think throughout the examination the delegation fulfilled the ‘explanation not obfuscation’ approach well. We explained a huge range of issues, from immigration settings, to accessibility for people of small stature, to end-of-life legislation, to our mechanisms for implementing the Convention with disabled people. We responded to the easy to explain, the complex, and the contentious.

Someone who tuned in to the UN broadcast described our presentation as highly professional, calm and well-organised. Even if, in the heat of the moment, we might have felt anything but calm and well-organised!

While we may have felt professionally confronted and tested by the Committee’s questions and challenges, it is important to acknowledge and honour those in the team for whom the challenge reached beyond the professional to the deeply personal.

Thank you to the many officials who have worked on disability policy and services across government over recent years. That work provided the substance for the narrative of the examination and I believe the delegation did well in representing some of that work during the examination. The examination preparation exposed some opportunities to do better.

In Geneva we were able to share great evidence of progress from across the range of government agencies and yet acknowledge progress to be made. The fact that some of the detailed and specific concluding observations from 2014 were still in progress was more than balanced by major disability transformational and strategic changes initiated and underway.

The Independent Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) Domestic Forum from earlier in the year provided a wealth of material and good preparation for the examination as well as providing an opportunity of itself for identifying disability issues across government agencies.

We all greatly appreciated the Minister’s support for ‘tell it as it is’ approach even if it might not have been what the Committee wanted to hear. The positive feedback from the Committee indicated that they also valued that approach by the delegation.

I believe we can confidently say Aotearoa over recent years has attempted to fully implement the spirit of the Convention even if progress on all the detailed activity has not yet been fully achieved.  There will always be more to achieve.

The real test however is “Has the lives of disabled New Zealanders been improved?”. 

The impact of recent and current activity will be good for some individuals already. However, significant positive change at a population level will take longer and require sustained effort.

The examination process reminded us that here are those in the disability community who typically are the last to benefit from changes.  This includes tāngata whaikaha Māori, learning disabled, Pacific disabled, those with complex support needs.  For these groups - equity demands partnership, enhanced and different approaches.

We await the concluding observations. We can anticipate what some of those observations may be, we will be surprised by some, and annoyed by others. We will treat them all with the respect that disabled people in Aotearoa would expect and honour the collective knowledge, experience and status of the Committee and its mechanisms.

Ngā mihi nui colleagues. Thank you for the great teamwork - for your individual and complementary skills and expertise, and for your commitment to each other and the collective approach that was demanded by the examination process and freely given. A great demonstration of the spirit of public service.

A huge mihi, to the ODI team, some of whom have been closely involved in the preparations. The ODI work on the NZ Disability Strategy and Action Plan, the data and evidence work, NZSL Board, the Disability Policy Toolkit, the work with the community, the COVID-19 response and other projects provided substance for the evidence of the progress sought by the Committee.

In the same light I should also mention the work of our Whaikaha and MSD colleagues and disability community partners whose work on Enabling Good Lives/systems transformation, accessibility, the establishment of Whaikaha could be positively reported within the examination process.  

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