Rights that are recognised internationally: The UN Disability Convention
What does the Disability Convention mean for disabled people in New Zealand?
“The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, or “UNCRPD” is an important international treaty New Zealand has signed up to. We’ll usually just call it “the UN Disability Convention” for short.
This is an important agreement – but you can’t go to the New Zealand courts and enforce your rights under one of these UN conventions.
Instead, when New Zealand signed up to the UN Disability Convention, we agreed to reform the law and do other things to put the rights in the Convention into effect. The Convention gives guidance on how to implement the rights of disabled people, and also requires our government to report regularly to a special UN Committee.
But there are some ways that the rights in the UN Disability Convention can have real force or influence in New Zealand:
First, in 2016, New Zealand signed up to “the Optional Protocol” to the Convention. This means that a disabled person in New Zealand can take a case to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (See below, “Enforcing your rights under the Disability Convention”.)
Case:  NZCA 20
Second, the Human Rights Act 1993, New Zealand’s main anti-discrimination law, says its purpose is to provide protection for human rights in New Zealand “in general accordance” with relevant UN conventions. In an important discrimination case in one of New Zealand’s highest courts, that statement in the Human Rights Act was referred to by the judges when they were interpreting that Act. They said that the statement placed a positive duty on employers, shops, universities and so on to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people have equal access. This is the idea of “reasonable accommodation”, which although not mentioned in exactly those words in the Human Rights Act, is still in there just in different words and in different contexts.
Third, when New Zealand signed up to the UN Disability Convention back in 2008, our Parliament also passed an ordinary New Zealand Act that repealed or amended a number of laws – mostly old ones – that were inconsistent with the Convention. For example, there was a rule in our benefit laws (in the Social Security Act) that said you could be paid a lower benefit than other people if you weren’t able “to appreciate the payments”. This has now been changed.
So, the UN Disability Convention is something that’s still relevant and important in the New Zealand context, even though it’s not what lawyers would describe as being “directly enforceable” in our courts.