“Human Rights NGOs Concerns in the Commonwealth Caribbean
All English speaking Caribbean countries were British Colonies and share largely similar histories, similar present day economic, political and social realities and similar legal systems. Most are now independent though a few (notably the Cayman Islands and Montserrat) remain British administered territories. All share a history of slavery, indentureship, colonialism, multi-ethnic, migrant and mobile populations, and economic struggle. Today almost all share the present day reality of economic underdevelopment (the notable exemptions being Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados). They are mostly parliamentary (Westminster type) democracies, the exception being Guyana that concentrates power in the hands of an Executive President who is not directly elected.
Given the similarities it is not strange that human rights activists and members of the Non Governmental Organization (NGO) community across the region share similar concerns.
The constitutions of the independent countries of the Caribbean are all almost identical and based on the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. All the constitutions concentrate huge amounts of power in the hands of the Prime Ministers (or a President) who are chosen by those members of their party who are elected to Parliament. The concentration of power allows Prime Ministers effective control over Parliament and most critical appointments including those of the Ministers, members of the Service Commissions, the Chief Justices, the Directors of Public Prosecutions and the Attorneys General. This concentration of power, without a strong tradition of independence of the members of Parliament from the executive, has led to an authoritarian, non-consultative style of governance across the region which is of grave concern to the NGO community.
Attitude to Human Rights
NGO’s across the region are proud of the united stance taken by their governments against human rights abuses around the world including the active role played in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. We are however perplexed by the defensive and insular attitudes adopted to human rights problems within our own jurisdictions. This defensive and insular attitude is manifest in the withdrawal of the government of Trinidad and Tobago from the Inter American Court of Human Rights and the failure of other governments, other than that of Barbados, to join the court. It is also manifest in the withdrawal of the government of Jamaica from the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that has denied its citizens the opportunity to use the United Nations mechanisms for the protection of rights. It would appear that the governments of the Caribbean do not fully accept the international nature of the struggle for rights and see any external oversight and questions as a threat to their sovereignty.
Public education about human rights has been limited to the work of NGO’s with little or no support from the governments across the region.
Crime and Violence
Most Caribbean territories have experienced increased rates of violent crime, including rising murder rates, over the last decade. This is of concern to their populations and to the NGO community across the region. The geographic position of the Caribbean territories has made them prime locations for the transhipment of cocaine between the USA, the UK and Europe and fuelled the national crime rates as well as the influx of guns and drugs which are used locally. The geography of the region and the relatively ineffectual police forces have also allowed for the growth of human trafficking networks and gang networks linked to international organized crime groups. This in turn has fuelled police corruption and rising crime rates locally.
Problems of Policing
To a greater or lesser extent all the police forces in the Caribbean suffer from the ills of unreformed police structures. The failure of attempts at police reform to reduce abuses by the police is of grave concern across the region. These failures are manifest in a myriad of problems ranging from breaches of the rights of juveniles, failure to deal effectively with domestic abuse and abuse of women, failure to follow due process; use of brutality and torture; corruption; bias and discrimination; violence and discrimination against homosexuals; and alleged extra-judicial executions. At a recent conference of human rights NGO’s in the Caribbean these concerns were expressed thus:
‘Police forces across the region are characterised by high levels of corruption and severe weaknesses, or complete lack of accountability mechanisms. The timidity and ineffectualness of reform efforts are failing to break corrupt linkages, entrench accountability or produce professionalism in police forces.’
Problems in the Justice System
There is concern across the region that politicization of those institutions created to uphold the law, namely the judiciary, the public prosecutor’s office and the police has resulted in collusion on issues which in turn have led to the erosion of human rights. While this concern is of greater or lesser importance in different territories, the recent contretemps between the Prime Minister and Chief Justice in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is illustrative and cautionary.
Common across the region are some worrying threats to the Rule of Law including: corruption; mob-violence and killings; and ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands even to the extent of carrying out extra-judicial killings. The Justice systems are still fairly inaccessible to those who need it most, the poor and disadvantaged. Jamaica’s Justice systems in particular, but also some of the systems in other territories have lengthy delays in the disposal of cases. These delays, of themselves, constitute a threat to the provision of justice.
Also of concern in the region is the severely limited provision of Legal Aid in most territories. Limitations of Legal Aid are particularly acute in small islands where everyone knows everyone else and persons accused of heinous crimes may have severe difficulties getting legal aid representation. There are also problems of getting legal representation in challenges to government authority in small societies. Attempts to address this issue are currently underway in the NGO community.
The issue of the application of the death penalty is also of grave concern to many NGO’s. The death penalty remains on the books in all the independent territories and attempts to remove it as a punishment have foundered on a lack of political will to confront entrenched societal attitudes that demand the death penalty as a response to rising crime levels.
While the Caribbean is mostly free of the worst forms of discrimination there are specific problems in some territories. Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago particularly grapple with issues of racial tension between persons of Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean heritage. Belize struggles with the issue of ensuring no discrimination against refugees and migrants from its Spanish-speaking neighbours Honduras and Guatemala. Belize and Guyana also have a problem with ensuring and enshrining indigenous people’s rights. Throughout the Caribbean, but more particularly in Jamaica, there is the problem of insufficient legal procedures to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers who come primarily from Haiti and Cuba.
There are also problems of discrimination against, and exploitation of the labour of, foreign (often undocumented) workers who travel between the territories in search of work. They are often paid below minimum wage, over worked and exploited because they fear to complain lest they be deported.
The right to non-discrimination of persons living with HIV/Aids is proving an ongoing challenge that for the most part has been well dealt with by the governments of the region. Less well handled has been the issue of discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation, with Jamaica in particular having a chilling record of mob attacks on gays and tepid (or non existent) government response.
Women’s and Children’s Rights
The region’s governments have done much work on the issues of women’s and children’s rights, however, much work remains to be done to ensure the protection of these vulnerable groups. Many NGO’s across the region work for the promotion and protection of the rights of Women and Children.
Prison conditions across the region remain substandard and unacceptable. Overcrowding has become a particular concern given the rising crime rates across the region. In many of the territories of the region attention needs to be paid to the incarceration of juveniles who far too frequently are housed with adult offenders due to lack of suitable juvenile facilities. Also of concern are the lack of proper medical attention available in prisons and the, often horrendous, treatment of the mentally ill in prisons.
Freedom of the Press
The Caribbean has, for the most part, an admirable record of freedom of the press. However, most territories retain fairly draconian libel laws that have been used by some politicians in, what would appear to be, attempts to muzzle the press and suppress embarrassing revelations. Concerns about the use of the economic power of government being used to limit freedom of the press have also surfaced recently with the withdrawal of Government advertising from one newspaper in Guyana that was critical of the governing party. This action has attracted protest from the Inter American Press Association.
The territories of the Caribbean share much, including breath taking natural beauty. Unfortunately they share common problems of abuse of rights which are not always addressed with the will or alacrity which the Caribbean NGO community would wish to see.”