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Published: 05 February 2018
Author: Natalie Williams* with Alyssa Lewis

NZ announces royal commission into state abuse

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that the New Zealand Government will hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the abuse committed against children by the state between 1950 and 1999. The inquiry will include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse committed against children who were within the care of the state. This will include youth detention centres, psychiatric hospitals, orphanages and other privately-run government care facilities.

Notably sports and religious institutions are currently outside of the inquiry’s scope, however where these are connected to the state, the government has shown a willingness to include them.

The announcement has been welcomed by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and described as "an important moment in the history of human rights." The organisation was one of the many parties who signed an open letter entitled “Never Again” released in February of last year which called upon the then Prime Minister Mr Bill English to take action on historical abuse by the state. Disability Rights and Indigenous Rights groups in New Zealand also signed the letter.

How does the NZ royal commission differ to that held in Australia?

Comparisons can easily be drawn between this newly announced Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Australian commission, announced in 2007, represented a monumental step forward in the recognition of sexual abuse within institutions, most notably within the Catholic church. The nature of the enquiries, especially the overlap in relation to survivors of child sexual abuse from government figures, mean that much can be learned from the Australian commission that will assist in the organisation and procedure of the inquiry.

Despite being considered an important progression in hearing the experiences of survivors, criticisms have been levelled at the inquiry in terms of its boundaries. The New Zealand inquiry is limited in the scope of its timeline and by the nature of the institutions it seeks to investigate. With a timeframe of 1950 to 1999, there are forty-nine years of abuse to hear. However, most institutions involved within the inquiry and the policies they complied with in this period were in operation outside of that era. Further, sports and religious institutions are outside the scope of the inquiry, which have been other areas in which abuse has been found in other jurisdictions. This potentially excludes a myriad of victims whose lives were irreparably affected by non-state abuse.

The Australian Royal Commission was criticised in similar ways, most notably in relation to its boundaries excluding victims of physical and emotional abuse committed by institutions. The current exclusions from the proposed New Zealand scheme would be reminiscent of the country’s previous investigations into state abuse, most notably the New Zealand Confidential Listening and Assistance Service. In that scheme, which ultimately ended in June 2015, prisoners were excluded from being heard as well as those residing outside of New Zealand.

Government investigations into abuse clearly face issue in ensuring they are inclusive of all potential survivors. All those who have suffered at the hands of institutions deserve their chance to be heard and to make an impact on changes being made to prevent such acts happening in the future. The practicalities of this are difficult, but important to ensuring justice.

This announcement represents significant progress in acknowledging the harm New Zealand survivors suffered through while they were in the care of the state and in addressing how this was allowed to take place. The inquiry is an important step in ensuring justice for survivors of state abuse. Though the breadth of the announced New Zealand abuse commission is comparatively restricted, the attitude of the government in acknowledging the needs of survivors demonstrates the level of respect and support that is necessary to allow relations between survivors and the state to be mended.

* Natalie Williams is currently undertaking a seasonal clerkship with RCT.