Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fred Mitchell on Saving CARICOM

Saving CARICOM, pt. 3

• This commentary is taken from a lecture given by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell on February 6 at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago. Mitchell’s address was on “Saving CARICOM”.

There were times when the project appeared to be imperiled. It seems to me that most people will say that this was the case during the seven years when the heads of government did not meet. It is interesting reading the 1982 speeches, the first of the conference meetings after a break of seven years. By that time, Eric Williams had passed away and while some of the founders of the project were there, there was a new world order.

By the time the conference took place in 1982 in Ocho Rios, Edward Seaga had become prime minister of Jamaica, with Ronald Reagan in the White House in Washington. Mr. Seaga was embraced by the new U.S. administration as a sign that a more conservative era had returned to the Caribbean after the work in democratic socialism under Michael Manley.

It is not clear why the conference had not met during those seven years. I sought to find the reasons. The best I could discover was that a row broke out amongst the leaders over some issue and they simply refused to attend.

It was left to the ministers in council to carry on the work and in 1982 the leaders met in Ocho Rios in Jamaica and conferences have met ever since then.

The Bahamas joined CARICOM on July 4, 1983. We had become independent on July 10, 1973. I am not certain why it took us 10 years to join, since we had been participating in the work of many of the institutions of the project from the 1950s. The main one being the University of the West Indies and then the Council of Legal Education and the Medical Council.

Several generations of Bahamians have been trained at the university, in the law school and in the medical school. Our first student was Dr. Cecil Bethel who enrolled in the medical school in 1952.

In 1983, I was then working as a special assistant out of the Bahamas Information Services in the prime minister’s office. I recall two things about CARICOM at that time. The death of Maurice Bishop, the prime minister of Grenada took place on October 20, 1983. The question was whether or not The Bahamas and other CARICOM leaders would support the decision of the United States to invade Grenada to restore constitutional order. According to a recollection by former Guyana Foreign Minister Rashleigh Jackson on “... The Bahamas, Guyana, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago were against any military action, whereas Barbados and Jamaica were clearly in favor of the OECS countries issuing an invitation to the United States of America to join with them in an invasion of Grenada... ”

I am happy to have included that story because I have travelling with me two researchers and aides from the ministry in Nassau: Joy Newbold and Jamahl Strachan. Ms. Newbold was born in the year the coup took place in Grenada in 1979. Mr. Strachan was born in 1988 well after both the coup and the invasion had taken place. The idea that there had been a coup in a CARICOM country had been news to them and with this inclusion they were enlightened about the story. It led to a full discussion with the secretary general again on the need for a definitive narrative on how we have come to where we are.

That disagreement over Grenada did not break up CARICOM. In fact at the heads of government meeting in The Bahamas from July 4 to July 7, 1984, Nicholas Brathwaite, chairman of the Interim Advisory Council, Grenada was accepted into the conference as the legitimate representative of the Grenadian people and the representative of Jamaica Edward Seaga was also there at the CARICOM table.

The conference continues to meet, often in a most passionate form.

The second thing that I remember from that time with Sir Lynden was that a decision was made on the question of putting the Tourism School for the University of the West Indies in Nassau. He said that he had made it plain to his colleagues that since The Bahamas was then the leader of tourism in the region that was the best place to put the school and they agreed.

That was my introduction to CARICOM.

In 1979, as the director of news and public affairs for our Broadcasting Corporation, I got to meet for the first time one Percival James Patterson, otherwise known as P.J. He was then foreign minister for Jamaica in and around the time of the coup against Maurice Bishop in 1979. As fate would have it, I became minister of foreign affairs of The Bahamas in 2002 and ended up working closely with Mr. Patterson on perhaps the most contentious issue of our era: that of Haiti and the overthrow of Jean Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti about which I shall have more to say later.

I turn now to a document that was adopted by the heads of government in 1997 which loomed very large when I became minister in 2002 but seems now to have lapsed into obscurity; but you will see why I am arguing now that it should become more central to what CARICOM is and should be revisited and updated. It is called the Charter Of Civil Society. It was adopted in 1997 and while it is not justiciable, or so it appears, in that it is not community law in so far as I am aware, the document says the following at XXVI: “The states declare their resolve to pay due regard to the provisions of this charter.”

As lawyers often say, at the very least then this charter is binding in honor. It forms the basis of a descriptive and normative set of values to which we all adhere and aspire and if any country does not agree with those values, then ipso facto they cannot be a member of CARICOM. Thus those who argue in favor of Cuba becoming a CARICOM member without changes in the conduct of the internal arrangements at governance in Cuba may have an uphill battle.

Certainly for The Bahamas, it was the pretext for us to implement consultations in our country through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with civil society. That practice fell into disuse when the PLP lost office in 2007 and we have been seeking to revive it. Article XXV calls for reports to be sent to the secretary general periodically. There are supposed to be national committees reviewing the implementation of the charter.

I believe that it is time to put the words of this charter into action. I believe that while the CARICOM Single Market And Economy (CSME) is a valuable and valued project and aspiration, you will find that the emphasis on that aspect of our relations and the difficulties of harmonizing economies and market space have caused some of the negativity which we now see toward CARICOM. When you look at the successes of this region and the functional cooperation that has been engendered, the work of the specialized agencies, you will see that CARICOM has been a roaring success. It is time, therefore, to look to human rights issues.

Nothing is more contentious than this issue in our politics that I now raise, given the religious aversion and visceral reactions to discussion of LGBT issues in our region. Some people see it as striking at the very heart and fabric of our cultural identity. The Bahamas is not an exception to that aversion with many people seeing the discussion as a moral and religious one and not a human rights one. My own political career suffers because of my insistence that in this regard like all other aspects of human life, there must be tolerance at a minimum and we must uphold the principle that the general rights for which we fought as being rights for all people, particularly as a formerly enslaved and indentured people, cannot be derogated from because of someone’s sexual orientation. In other words, when the charter in article III says: “States shall, in the discharge of their legislative, executive administrative and judicial functions ensure respect for and protection of the human dignity of every person.” That in my view means literally every person and not just confined to what article V says: “No person shall be favored or discriminated against by reason of age, color, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, language, place of birth or origin, political opinion, race, religion or social class.”

The charter is a 1997 document so orientation was not included and perhaps even in today’s atmosphere cannot be included, but the conversation has begun and the pressure from other societies with whom we deal is upon us to consider what our stand is on the rights of all people. Do we as a society for example condone violence against people simply because of their sexual orientation? The answer to that must be no. And if the answer is not no to that then the charter is not worth the paper it is written on.

The prime minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, and Dr. Denzil Douglas, [prime minister] of St. Christopher and Nevis, have begun public discussions of these issues in their societies. The prime minister of Barbados even challenged the Anglican Church on the subject at their provincial synod. That was right and just. The Bahamas has decriminalized behavior associated with sexual orientation.

We have available in aid and comfort to any change to amplify the discrimination provision in the charter the constitution of South Africa which admits to orientation as one of the named classes for which there can be no discrimination. There are profound changes throughout the United States and Europe, our main trading and cultural partners on this issue. It would be unwise to ignore it.

I often find that in drafting solutions to contentious problems that one solution is a generic one. One solution is that the charter can become justiciable with enforceable rights across the community. Less coercively, it can be open to the Caribbean Court of Justice as the final arbiter of community law to adjudicate upon the charter and declare the rights of individuals for any aggrieved individual seeking an opinion from the court declaring his rights and the wording of the provision at article V can be reworded to read: “No person shall be favored or discriminated against by reason of including but not limited to the following: age, color, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, language, place of birth, origin, political opinion, race, religion, social class or some other characteristic which in the opinion of the court deserves special protection.”

Of course the short way to deal with this is simply to add orientation as one of the listed characteristics. I have no remit to pronounce on that, however, and I do not do so.

What is important is that our leaders have already begun the conversation and that conversation should continue. That conversation should be underpinned with the principles of tolerance and the protection of the law for another disadvantaged group.

Less contentiously I suspect will be the question of the extent to which the principle of non-interference in the affairs of another CARICOM state still applies given what happened in Grenada in 1979 and again in 1983. When a state disintegrates and is under threat because of natural disasters that is an easy question to answer, but not so easy when one faces the question of civil disorder over political and civic issues.

The experience of Grenada and the restoration of democracy there has perhaps set the precedent that a governor general or president, acting in his own deliberate judgment, can call for outside assistance, even military or policing assistance.

Perhaps the charter ought to be amended to make clear what the position of member states will be when the human rights of individuals in a member state are so violated that it begs the question of outside interference. This is dangerous ground I admit, one on which we tread carefully.

• Fred Mitchell is the member of Parliament for Fox Hill and minister of foreign affairs and immigration.

March 07, 2014

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 1

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 2

- Saving CARICOM pt.4

- Saving CARICOM, pt. 5