By Sir Ronald Sanders
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados- Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, drew a recent report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to my attention.
It confirms what Caribbean countries had always heard about the way people of African descent are treated in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, and it also flags-up the legal intolerance and criminalisation of homosexuals and lesbians in the countries of the English-Speaking Caribbean because of their sexual preferences.
According to the report, during its 140th period of sessions from 20 October to 5 November 2010, the Commission held 52 hearings and 28 working meetings and concluded that “structural human rights problems still persist in the region.” These include the situation involving people of African descent, women, persons deprived of liberty, and the “gay” community.
The Commission expressed its concern about information it received about persistent practices in the Dominican Republic whereby persons of Haitian descent “who were born in that country” are denied their right to nationality. The Commission believes that Dominican Republic’s argument that “there are no stateless persons in that country, since children born to Haitians in the Dominican Republic can be registered at the Haitian consulate”, is incompatible with the Inter-American Convention and case law of the Inter-American Commission and Court.”
Of course the Dominican Republic is not the only place in which Haitians or persons born of Haitian parents are denied basic rights. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, it was well known that the Haitian migrant community were exploited as a work force and denied the right to become “belongers” or citizens, and in the latter case the consideration was not racial, it was pure and unadulterated xenophobia practiced against people of the same race.
Sadly, this latter phenomenon has also been witnessed in the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) where discrimination has been ruthlessly applied in immigration controls against people of African descent while a blind eye has been turned to Europeans and other non-black peoples.
The Commission also reported excessive use of police force against Afro-descendants in Brazil. The report said the IACHR had “received troubling information about the high rates of crime and police violence in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Espírito Santo, Bahia, and Pernambuco, and heard petitioners' allegations regarding the close link between these violent deaths and racial discrimination”.
Charges of "institutional racism" was also levelled at Brazil and petitioners claim that it contributes to the” high levels of harassment, deprivation of liberty, and executions among the population of African descent in Brazil, as well as the underreporting of violent deaths perpetrated by the police”.
Costa Rica was also fingered in the report for poor human rights practices toward Afro-Caribbean people in the canton of Talamanca. The IACHR was informed that Talamanca has the lowest index of social development nationally, along with the highest levels of extreme poverty and illiteracy in the country.
As a point of general concern, the Commission received what it called “sobering information” about the risk, threats, and the troubling number of murders of human rights leaders and defenders among the Afro-descendant population in various countries of the region.
All CARICOM countries, with the exception of the British Colony Montserrat, are members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and are entitled to seek election to the IACHR. However, of the seven members now serving on the Commission, none of them are from the Caribbean.
Yet, election to the Commission presents an opportunity for Caribbean states to be watchful of the conditions of people of African descent in Latin American countries. Their membership might also encourage more cases of racial discrimination to be brought to the fore. In these circumstances, it behoves Caribbean governments – who are the only ones who can do it – to propose Caribbean persons for election to the Commission.
But, Caribbean countries also have to be aware of the moat in their own eye while they champion the cause of persons of African descent who are discriminated against.
The same Commission received information indicating that “12 countries of the English-speaking Caribbean still have laws criminalizing sexual and intimate conduct between persons of the same sex”. The Commission named these countries as: Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.
According to the Commission’s report, sentences range from 10 years in prison or forced labour to life imprisonment for consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. The Commission received information indicating that the very existence of such laws perpetuates unwarranted stereotypes, is a cause for fear in the sexually diverse community, and fosters impunity for serious crimes committed against this community.
Other detrimental factors that could be added to this are the spread of HIV/Aids that could result from clandestine same-sex practices, the fear of seeing doctors, and the loss of a productive people who could make a real contribution to Caribbean development in the broadest meaning of that term.
There has been more than a handful of non-heterosexual Caribbean persons who have made a lasting contribution to the Caribbean civilisation and whose worth and dignity have been publicly acclaimed. It is a frightening thought that the significant contribution of these persons could have been denied because of their personal and private sexual preferences.
The issue of decriminalising homosexuality between consenting adults has been confronted squarely in many parts of the world. Homosexuals and Lesbians have served in the highest councils of government, business and the arts, and they continue to do so today.
In the Caribbean, the issue is linked to the doctrines of some religious groups and to their influence on people who vote in elections. Political parties have been loath to fall afoul of voters swayed by some strident religious leaders.
But just as discrimination against persons of African descent must be resisted and overturned wherever it occurs, so too must discrimination against consenting people of a different sexual persuasion – they are a part of our common humanity.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sir Ronald Sanders. Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.