Move towards national reconciliation to combat race problems, UN expert says

Further, the expert has said there is need for a new era of political will and strong, visionary leadership to change and reverse the economic and social stagnation evident in the divided country.

According to the findings of Gay McDougall, while the government has taken commendable steps to address issues of ethnic tensions, criminal activities and economic underdevelopment, “further effective action is required urgently to restore confidence in good governance and the rule of law in all communities, and prevent an inexorable slide into further polarization and possible violence.”

In particular, she noted that a “serious concern” is the stigmatisation of young Afro-Guyanese males and entire communities, which reported feelings of being excluded, discriminated against and victimised. She also says current anti-discrimination legislation and policies are insufficient to address discrimination, exclusion and ethnically-based bias, and she recommends robust new laws to deal with entrenched barriers.

McDougall reiterated the previous findings of ethnic polarization among Guyanese of African and Indian and indigenous descent − a description the government has rejected. “This polarization, starkly reflected in the ethnic composition of the political parties, is reproduced in state institutions, particularly in the army and police,” she explained, adding that “Ethnically-based divisions and politics have created two separate and conflicting narratives and perceptions of reality in Guyana.” On the part of Afro-Guyanese, McDougall said, there is a widely held belief that they are discriminated against by an Indian-dominated and supported government that puts Indian interests to the fore, particularly in resource allocation, government contracts and employment. At the same time, she said Indo-Guyanese believe that an Afro-centric political opposition, if in power, would settle political scores and work solely in the interests of Afro-Guyanese. “On the basis of recent atrocities and ongoing killings [a reference to the Lusignan and Bartica massacres], both ethnic groups currently perceive a heightened threat of violence from the other,” she said, noting that many believe this threat to be sanctioned or supported to some extent by the opposite political party. She added that rumours and conspiracy theories are rife and are being exploited by those who might seek to fuel ethnic tensions for their own ends.

But the government, in a strongly-worded official response, has rejected the description of the country as “ethnically polarized,” stating that it flies in the face of documented occasions like Guyana’s hosting of ICC Cricket World Cup matches in 2007 as well as the hosting of CARIFESTA last year. The government has also accused McDougall of failing to incorporate its views adequately into her reports, misleading it about her mission and being susceptible to the wiles of extremists. Through its Permanent Mission to the UN, the government has submitted an official response to the Human Rights Council, registering its “profound concern” about the scant regard with which it was treated. It has also questioned her report’s focus on one ethnic group to the exclusion of others that constitute real minorities. “The State Party has difficulties comprehending on what basis the mandate of minorities was switched to examining exclusively the concerns of Afro-Guyanese − an ethnic group comprising 30.2% of the population − who are a sizeable, significant and influential component of the body politic and cultural fabric of society,” the government said. It added: “It is incomprehensible to this State Party that the Amerindian population, the largest defined minority appears to have been reclassified, ignored and shunted to another Special Rapporteur!”

In its response, government said Guyana is an emerging democracy and poor developing country that has taken quantum leaps in the last sixteen years, radically altering the architecture of the state through comprehensive constitutional, legislative and parliamentary reform. “The political architecture of the state has established inclusive governance as the methodology of the state’s modus vivendi and modus operandi as enshrined in the Constitution,” it noted, adding that McDougall’s apparent advocacy of shared governance flies in the face of comprehensive constitutional provisions, including the leader of the opposition’s veto on key appointments. The government suggested that the only explanation for McDougall’s approach is a lack of experience in comparable multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies such as Trinidad and Suriname in the region.

‘From malaise  into despair’
McDougall visited Guyana between July 28 and August 1 last year, to promote among other things the implementation of the Declara-tion on Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. She conducted consultations with senior government representatives, including President Bharrat Jagdeo, ministers and other public officials. She also consulted with civil society organisations, political parties, religious leaders, academics and media representatives.

According to the report, which was submitted to the UN human Rights Council in February this year, every level of the Guyanese society is permeated by profound moral, emotional and political fatigue, arising out of the impact of ethnic polarization. She said a vast majority of those consulted felt that political polarization and ethnically-based political parties are corrosive forces in the society. There was criticism of the electoral system, she noted, and calls for shared governance were widely expressed. She explained that since the political parties are so ethnicized the current Proportional Representation (PR) system inevitably creates government dominated by one ethnic group. Additionally, most within the Afro-Guyanese community felt that the numerical advantage of the Indo-Guyanese, which represents 43.5% of the population with a favourable demographic trend for the future, effectively excludes the largely Afro-Guyanese PNC from regaining government through the ballot box.

On the other hand, McDougall said representatives of the Indian community, the government and the PPP party acknowledged disparities existed between Indian and Afro-Guyanese but rejected allegations of discrimination. They stated that the causes of inequality lie in socio-economic, cultural and historical factors. There is a history of entrepreneurship within the Indo-Guyanese community through the exploitation of Indian capital, labour and skills, they noted, saying it reflected relative success as against discrimination. Further, it was noted too that divisive allegations of discrimination and exclusion are sometimes politically motivated and exploited by the opposition. The government and PPP rejected allegations of impropriety and discrimination, McDougall said, while Indo-Guyanese sources claimed that Afro-Guyanese firms lacked the capacity to compete for government contracts.

McDougall added that in contrast, Indo-Guyanese non-governmental sources painted a more positive picture of ethnic relations and social cohesion. “They noted that beyond the urban areas where division may appear more pronounced, many villages are ethnically mixed and relationships are harmonious, with interracial relationships being quite common,” she reported. Additionally, public holidays and celebrations are shared events, they suggested, which all ethnic groups participate in and welcome.

She also recalled the July 2003 report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism which highlighted that every level of Guyanese society is permeated by moral, emotional and political fatigue, arising out of the individual and collective impact of ethnic polarization. “Five years later, the independent expert visited communities that are moving from malaise, into despair, anger and resistance,” she said, noting that it was particularly evident in Afro-Guyanese communities. “The stigmatization of young, Afro-Guyanese males and entire African communities is a serious concern,” she added, noting that derogatory stereotypes of criminality colour wider societal perceptions of Afro-Guyanese individuals and communities. She said army operations such as “Restore Order” that focused on Buxton and other Afro-Guyanese communities add to the perception that they constitute a “problem” to be solved by security and law enforcement means. Buxtonians, she noted, believe there is a presumption of criminality used to justify subsequent excessive force during the conduct of joint service operations in their community and that illegal covert “security forces” have been sanctioned to operate in Guyana.

‘Political will,  visionary leadership  needed’
McDougall said the people of the country desire a different future of security, prosperity and shared development and acknowledge that all communities deserve and must have a stake in the future. In this regard, she said for reconciliation to take place a climate of trust must be established. “The challenges that exist, both historic and current, must be confronted collectively,” she said, emphasising that the “government, all political parties, and religious, cultural and civil society groups representing different communities should take responsibility to reach out beyond the ethnic divide and to build bridges between communities.” She added that the country must “close the widening fault-lines that exist between communities” and “take all necessary steps” to avoid decline into lawlessness, impunity, and ethnically based conflict.  McDougall said: “For Guyana to progress, it cannot be acceptable for there to be an understanding, real or perceived, that the government is an Indian administration working in the interest of Indians and that the opposition is African; that an Indian employer will only recruit an Indian worker; that public contracts will be granted on the basis of ethnicity; that the police and military are African institutions; that crime is a problem centred in the African community; or that certain villages are exclusively African or Indian.”

She noted too that it is vital for in “the current climate of suspicion” to build trust between communities and faith in public institutions and in government. However, she drew attention to the fact that a period of democratic dialogue, under which the main political parties had agreed on the basis of a 2003 joint communique to work together to find solutions in the interests of all the people, failed to achieve tangible results. “An open and constructive dialogue on inclusive governance… remains an essential component of a new political climate of cooperation,” McDougall declared, saying “The Government should demonstrate leadership by meeting the preconditions set in those agreements and initiating such a dialogue with all stakeholders at the earliest possible opportunity.” Additionally, she said included in the agenda should be models used in other countries with deeply divided ethnic communities to encourage the formation of multi-ethnic political parties.

Despite the initiation of numerous such political processes, little meaningful impact has been achieved, she noted, saying that it has undermined confidence in the political processes particularly among Afro-Guyanese communities that feel politically disenfranchised. As a result, she also emphasised that reforms must be far reaching and highly consultative, and  the processes must be time-bound, action-oriented, and must lead to concrete, achievable outcomes.

Previous recommendations, including those of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, with few exceptions have not been implemented and she called on the government, all political parties, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders to fully enact them as a roadmap for equality, non-discrimination and respect for human rights. McDougall also said “Government should take steps to respond convincingly to perceptions that the Afro-Guyanese community as a whole has been targeted during actions by the joint services, resulting in arbitrary detention without trial, torture, deaths and mistreatment in custody, and other extrajudicial killings.” She added that an urgent independent review of the security and law enforcement services and the justice system is needed.

McDougall was also critical of the failure to implement the key  agreements reached at the National Stakeholder Forum in March last year with the inputs from government, parliamentary political parties and civil society. At the time of her visit, the agreements to create a parliamentary committee on national security; to expedite the appointment of six outstanding constitutional commissions within a ninety-day timeframe; to convene and activate the Constitutional Reform Committee; to examine outstanding issues and potential areas for reform; to ensure meaningful and effective participation of civil society in the parliamentary processes; and to explore an agreed mechanism for the continuation of the National Stakeholders’ Forum, had not materialized. Since then, the mechanism to create parliamentary committees has been approved while the nominees for one of the commissions have been identified to the president for appointment.

‘Gross inaccuracies extremely offensive’
In its response, the government said it remained “unconvinced of McDougall’s arguments,” calling them baseless, flawed and fundamentally contradictory. The government explained that while it made several attempts through Guyana’s Permanent Mission to ascertain the focus of and objective of the visit to facilitate the expert’s visit, no information was provided. It said it was only on receiving a draft of the final report in January that it became aware of the focus of the visit, adding that it was bewildered as to the shift in mandate and what it perceived as a contradictory position on minority concerns.

According to the government, it submitted a comprehensive and detailed response to every section of the draft, which it expected would be suitably revised to include its submissions, including the removal of “gross inaccuracies” and offensive statements. “Regrettably, on receipt of the final revised draft version… the State Party recognized that few of its observations, clarifications and corrections of misinformation and subjectivism were incorporated,” it said. “The uncritical reporting of serious allegations and the miniaturization of the State Party’s responses are extremely offensive and flies in the face of the State Party’s rights and the will of the people it represents.”

Government said it was concerned that the country is portrayed as an “ethnically polarized society” in which one ethnic group dominates another at all levels. It said the Independent Expert ignored statistics that illustrated that no political party and no ethnic group through a political party could gain power as no ethnic group has majority to win 51% of the vote as required by the constitution. It said it won 54.75 of the votes at the 2006 general elections, pointing out that it was not achieved through ethnic voting.

The government felt McDougall needs to review her understanding of proportional representation in plural societies in light of her conclusions about the PR system in Guyana. In fact, it added that her preoccupation with the political aspect of the minority issue is revealed in her report “which is consistent with the views peddled by the PNCR, one of the opposition parties and the extremist anti-Government cabal” that ethnic plurality will prevent the opposition from ever regaining power. Moreover, government argued that on the basis of the PNCR’s record in government and its leadership of the post-elections violence in 1992, 1997 and 2001 as well as linkages with the criminal violence of the 2002 to 2008 period, regaining power would be no answer to the legitimate concerns of Afro-Guyanese. “The test of any and all political parties will be based on leadership, policies, programmes and involvement of people at all levels and all ethnic groups,” it said.

It added that McDougall’s “unqualified baptism of shared governance in the absence of evidence to support its applicability in Guyana” is reflective of her uncritical approach to the country. It maintained that there is no institutionalized discrimination of any ethnic group or targeting of any one group of community in Guyana. Further, government said it recognizes the challenges it faces as an emerging democracy and a developing country are those relating to the availability and distribution of the limited and scarce resources. “These prevent it from radically reducing poverty, expanding the economic bases and responding more effectively to perceptions in the society at large,” it explained.

Government accused McDougall of approaching her mission with a preconceived and biased notion of state discrimination against Afro-Guyanese. It said her reluctance to address the situation of the Amerindian population appears to have deprived both the indigenous people as a minority and the government of recognition of the policies and achievements for which they both worked. It added that the omission strengthened its view that mission was preconceived with a very different agenda.

It said even if it were to concede that Afro-Guyanese make up a minority, then by the same argument all of the country’s ethnic groups would be considered minorities and all their concerns should have therefore been of interest to McDougall. The government said it wanted an explanation as to why the other ethnic groups were excluded from the consultative process for inclusion in the report. It invited McDougall to explain why her mission exclusively focused on one ethnic group.

The government also noted that it had indicated to McDougall’s office in February that it was requesting the opportunity to appear before the Human Rights Committee to respond officially with a delegation from Guyana when the report would be presented. It said it was prepared to attend the March 10 presentation by McDougall but learnt that she was seriously ill.

It was then advised that the presentation was rescheduled for March 13 but with no time and an indication that the date could be further shifted. Due to the uncertainties, it said it found it difficult to ensure that it is represented and therefore sought to have its official and written submissions distributed to the committee.

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