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Human rights abuse claims spike after quake

Human rights abuse claims have spiked in New Zealand as Canterbury residents file claims against insurance and construction companies.

Earthquake-affected residents are resorting to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines that require companies to respect the human rights of those affected by their activities.

Claimant Gavin Johnstone’s Mairehau home was severely damaged in the September 2010 quake. He was told that it needed to be pulled down. He has logged 68 visits by surveyors, engineers and other workers, yet there has still been no action on repairs.

Johnstone lives in the home with a terminally-ill friend. He said that after a failed attempt at resolution through the High Court last year, the pair had been “given a life sentence”.

“We are not being treated with dignity by any of them. We just cannot cope any more.”

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which handles OECD guideline complaints, has received 62 complaints since last November, up from the handful of complaints it usually fields each year.

Chief human rights commissioner David Rutherford said last year the Canterbury earthquakes represented one of New Zealand’s greatest contemporary human rights challenges.

Steve Patterson, who is leading the litigation on behalf of the Wider Earthquake Community Action Network (WeCAN), said the abuse claims were based on the failure of insurance companies to resolve claims more than three years after the quakes, and the failure of construction firms to start, complete or adequately repair damaged homes.

Human rights abuse claims to the OECD were relatively common overseas, but in New Zealand they were “trailblazing” in unknown territory, he said. The OECD in New Zealand has ruled that claims relating to the Earthquake Commission and Southern Response cannot be considered under its guidelines, because they are government entities.

There are also no legal consequences for complaints upheld by the OECD, but Patterson said the moral impact was such that companies usually responded with a settlement or a change of procedure. “A lot of claimants simply want an acknowledgement that they have been put through hell.”

The University of Canterbury School of Law is working with WeCAN to support the claimants.

Four law students will do volunteer work, helping to prepare files and legal research, including examining remedies outside the OECD.

_Rick Jordan for The Press