Today I did a response to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It’s the United Nations (UN) process where a government presents a snapshot of its human rights situation to the UN and other UN countries are provided with the opportunity to make suggestions on how progess could be made. Following this the final report with recommendations was open for submissions until Wednesday.
This article isn’t about the UPR specifically, except to comment that the two weeks allowed for responses was hardly generous. In fact it is entirely inadequate. Consulting within organisations and arriving at consensus views takes at least a month and preferably two. Proper feedback simply cannot be provided in such a short time frame. The only people who can respond are private individuals or organisations so closely allied to the process that they are effectively on the inside track and hence pre-prepared. The short time frame simply invites cynicism about whether the views of “stakeholders”, let alone the public, are really being sought, yet alone valued.
But an equally important issue is this. Despite more than 18 years since the government launched the all of government website www.govt.nz – a project with the promise of allowing a more transparent democracy government departments are still not mandated to post their submissions on that website. Government agencies often maintain a list of interested people and favoured ‘stakeholders’. Its very easy not to make it into the list. The technology is there – its simply not being properly used to strengthen our democracy. This is a core role for government – to tell us how they are working with us and when we can, as they coyly put it “Have a Say”.
And so it was with this consultation – it was not part of the government’s consultations web-page.
The consultation process for the periodic review is unusual to say the least. The first iteration of consultation to comment on the draft report happened at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But if you looked there to find the current process you’d be out of luck because it is now being run from the Justice Ministry. (As an aside I hope they have an official data sharing agreement so that they can legally and officially share the “stakeholder” contact data between the two agencies.)
However the consultation cannot be seen, or accessed, or found using the search function from the Justice Ministry website even though it is stored there. On the front page of the website no consultation link which is perhaps a clue to the relevance of the public voice. Clicking on various tabs finds the “Have Your Say” button under the Justice Sector Policy Tab. But the Universal Periodic Review consultation is not listed there either.
Neither can it be found in the ‘full’ listing of consultations on the website. Although there is a link to the Ministry’s consultations sub-site. Oh Good. It’ll be there then. Nup!
Is it listed there perhaps if you check the all open consultations option. No!
Nor can it be found either by searching for all open consultations
nor by searching for the words “Universal Periodic Review”.
If you think this is all a bit precious and I should just use Google this is what happens. The first search result is the Universal Periodic Review Page. That’s very promising heh? It contains apparently current information about 2019 process. Surely we must be getting warm. It describes the first iteration of the consultation run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade mentioned above but unhelpfully tells readers that the 2019 consultation is already over.
And remember that all of this requires you in the first place to know that the consultation between country parties and the UN on Human Rights is ACTUALLY called the Universal Periodic Review. It’s not exactly something that you’d come across by accident is it?
This is hardly a proper democratic process focused on canvassing public opinion on an important matter if the submission cannot be found. If you were lucky enough to know this was happening because you are an avid news hound and read every Beehive Press release you might have known it was happening. (A recent link to a press release is available and it has been reproduced on Scoop). But it tells us that the Justice Minister made a speech in Geneva as head of the delegation – but it provided no our opportunity to participate). Perhaps you have signed up to dozens of government newsletters. But who has the time to do that? This is just not good enough! Our democratic processes should work for democracy.
Finally we get a hint of where all this is going with the Justice Ministry’s press release on the topic. We weren’t actually supposed to know at all that a consultation was going on. This is where we discover that the consultation is with targeted groups only. But in contrast if we look at the press release from the Human Rights Commission (who at least have the good grace to mention the short consultation time which they say is due to United Nations requirements). Here we discover
“The Ministry of Justice is conducting targeted stakeholder engagement to support the Government’s consideration of the recommendations from the UPR. The public’s input is much appreciated as it will assist them to identify which recommendations are prioritised the most by New Zealanders”.
They provide the link to the otherwise secret consultation and say, intriguingly given that this is a press release published (ie publicly) on the HRC’s website.
You may forward the feedback link on to others if you wish.
So we seem to have a contrast between the Ministry of Justice who considers that only specific groups have been invited and the Human Right’s Commission’s nod and a wink to all comers. But who are these stakeholders? Well they certainly didn’t include the women’s advocacy group Speak Up For Women whose campaign was behind one of the major turnarounds of this government’s term in office to date on the issue of women’s human rights and who, I imagine, feel they should have been stakeholders in this process as one of the few women’s organisations in NZ because they maintain the view that women’s sex based rights are worth fighting for.
Now I’ve put the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs and Trade in the frame in writing this. But just to reassure you they are far from alone. I’ve spent some looking at this and the examples of poor practice – some much worse than this are legion. Among the worst are when government doesn’t have the skills or capacity to consult it calls in private contractors to run consultations. In these circumstances the website can also be completely invisible except to the select few who happen to have signed up to the right newsletter. We citizens are being sort changed by this. So too is our democracy – and also the credibility of the public sector and our elected representatives is dented too. But just to review this one example – these website pages where you won’t find – but might reasonably expect to see the current Universal Periodic Review consultation.