Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dropping the Human Rights Ball

I was particularly moved by the words of the iconic Guyanese diplomat Rudy Insanally recently when he spoke of the chances our tiny but potentially mighty region is missing out on, if only because of a lack of effective application of our sheer numerical strength on the international stage.

It is my firm view that opportunities to influence the global and hemispheric agendas are not as much stymied by the fact of occasional displays of disunity as by a problem of low self-esteem.
Amb. Rudy Insanally

Certainly, short-sighted displays of disunity are heavily influenced by delusions about individual self-importance on the part of micro-states surviving purely on their wits and the goodwill of imperialist powers past and present. However, occasional grand-standing at the regional level is heavily tempered by a lack of self-confidence on the international stage.

One current discourse being almost absolutely ignored by the 14 independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states of the OAS is the attempt by several Latin American countries to water down the influence of the Inter-American human rights system – the focus of critical debate by countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela (which is now set to leave the human rights system entirely in September this year). These are countries that have not enjoyed the best relationship with either the inter-American Commission or the Court.

There is little doubt in the minds of most reasonable people, that the strategy being devised by what is now appearing to be a majority of Organisation of American States (OAS) countries is to weaken the reach and influence of an independent-minded set of institutions – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Inter-American Court of Human Rights – in order that the abuses of a number of recalcitrant states may continue unrecognised and unpunished.

Our small 15-member grouping (Montserrat is not independent and not a member of the OAS), has the power to dramatically influence this discussion.

Instead, it appears as if Jamaica is the only country keeping close tabs on the process – holding an albeit lukewarm position on the central issues through Amb. Stephen Vasciennie, an accomplished human rights attorney and professor.

When I spoke at a special civil society consultation of the OAS Permanent Council last December, Prof. Vasciennie was the only senior Caribbean diplomat in the chamber at the time. My own Trinidad and Tobago ambassador, Neil Parsan, was absent and though my participation in the consultation had been announced before-hand through the CARICOM caucus within the OAS, nobody seemed to think it was important enough that a lone Caribbean organisation had taken the time and trouble to make its voice heard on this issue.
OAS Building, Washington DC

Amb. Insanally’s remarks at the launch of his latest work on diplomacy resonate throughout this particular episode in the life of CARICOM participation in the inter-American system.

Or is it that we have countries among us with leaders who believe that having strong hemispheric oversight over issues of human rights is a bother that needs to be addressed?

Regrettably, I think this might well be the case.

My own efforts through the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) to loosen the state grip on press freedom and freedom of expression over the years have amply prepared me to deliver a verdict on this.

It does not surprise me that so many of our countries would rather turn the other way, or hold their noses while chronic human rights offenders in this part of the world run rough-shod over a system we all agreed would help bring us into the international mainstream of respect for the rights of our people.

But this, of course, is not only a matter for national governments. The malignant neglect reflects negatively on the work of Bar Associations throughout the region – impotent bands of self-interested and greedy professionals who are more and more turning their backs on issues of human rights.

Where, for example, is there a functioning Caribbean human rights association? Why is it, that apart from Jamaica and Guyana (to a lesser extent) there are no effective national human rights organisations which survive the election of their chief advocates to government?

Why is it, that on the question of the erosion of the influence of the inter-American human rights system, the ACM – a press freedom organisation with extremely limited resources – remains a solitary Caribbean voice in the human rights wilderness?

The worst-case scenario is that Caribbean authoritarian cultures will coalesce too comfortably with the remnants of Latin caudillismo at the expense of freedoms our societies sacrificed so much to possess.
The OAS discussions will paint a much clearer picture as we go along.

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