1 March 2007
New Zealand’s full participation in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is only a pen-stroke away. Parliament will soon vote on a bill which will allow women to take part in frontline combat duties, at the same time removing the only reservation blocking New Zealand from becoming a full signatory to CEDAW.
The Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Bill seeks to repeal the exemption in the Human Rights Act for sexual discrimination in the armed forces.
The Foreign Affairs and Trade select committee assessing the Bill has recommended that it be passed into law. In its report, the committee noted that “the front line” is a nebulous concept in modern warfare. “Given the reach of modern weapons, members of the armed forces serving in an armed conflict may expect to be involved in armed combat operations even when they are far behind the ‘front line’,” the report said.
Labour MP Lynne Pillay, who submitted the Bill, said in effect the exemption allowed the New Zealand Defence Force to discriminate against women regarding their employment in active roles.
“At the time the Human Rights Act was enacted the New Zealand Defence Force had a policy of not allowing women to serve in combat roles. However, that policy was formally rescinded by the Defence Force in the year 2000. Accordingly, section 33 of the Act no longer reflects current policy or practice in the New Zealand Defence Force,” Ms Pillay said during the first reading of the Bill.
The Bill refers to Section 33 of the Human Rights Act, which reads:
Nothing in section 22 of this Act shall prevent preferential treatment based on sex being given within the Armed Forces to any member of those forces who has the duty of serving in an active combat role in those forces.
This amendment to Section 33 of the Human Rights Act would allow New Zealand to fully ratify its international obligations to CEDAW, she said.
National Council of Women president Christine Low said the Council supported the Bill. “As supporters of CEDAW we’re in favour of it,” she said. It also brought legislation into line with current practice in the Defence Force.
Section 33 is not an outright prohibition on women serving in combat roles but rather allows men to be preferred in certain situations. In 2000 the Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshall Adamson issued a directive saying that he preferred not to adhere to Section 33’s preferential treatment in favour of men. This would allow the Services to adopt a more inclusive approach to the employment of women in combat roles, he said.
The Amendment Bill will return to the House for its second reading on the first Members' Day after Parliament resumes sitting for the year.
Women in armed combat