UN expert urges review of laws dealing with discrimination

Saying current legislation is insufficient to address discrimination, the United Nations Expert on Minorities has recommended a review of laws to assess their impact.

In the report on her mission to Guyana, Gay McDougall suggested that the government should establish a programme to monitor the extent to which anti-discrimination protections have been used as the basis for criminal and other legal proceedings. She added that there should be a data-driven evaluation of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) and the Office of the Ombudsman, which should lead to a re-evaluation of “whether additional, more effective mechanisms should be created to tackle aggressively ethnic discrimination.” McDougall said there is a lack of information on the impact of the current protections in the Constitution and statutes.

The Guyana government has issued a strong response to McDougall’s report, criticising her characterisation of the country as ethnically polarized, while calling her findings grossly inaccurate and extremely offensive.

McDougall, who visited Guyana between July 28 and August 1 last year, has warned that ethnic divisions entrenched in society could escalate into violence and urged government to take urgent steps towards national reconciliation, including the establishment of an open dialogue on inclusive governance. She also expressed concern about the stigmatisation of young Afro-Guyanese males and entire communities, saying they reported feelings of being excluded, discriminated against and victimised.

The government has accused McDougall of failing to incorporate its views adequately into her report, misleading it about her mission and of 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, while arguing in detail against her conclusions. The government has also questioned McDougall’s focus on one ethnic group to the exclusion of others that constitute real minorities.

Last week, the main opposition PNCR claimed the report has exposed the PPP/C administration for its discriminatory practices and poor governance. Although the party said it would issue a comprehensive statement at a later time, it condemned the government’s “raw and angry’ response to the report as being “misguided.” It said: “Rather than looking objectively at the recommendations of the report, the [government] has opted to do what it has done in similar circumstances: it has attacked the messenger rather than the message.”

Looking at “Non-Discrimination and Equality,” McDougall noted that there are constitutional and legislative provisions in place relating to anti-racism and non-discrimination. Article 149 of the Constitution, she noted, specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, place of origin, political openness, or colour. Also, the Prevention of Discrimination Act 1997 prohibits discrimination in employment on grounds including race, while the Racial Hostility Act prohibits acts which promote hostility or ill-will based on race. Further, the rights provisions of the Constitution and the legislative framework are enforced through the courts and Article 153 empowers the High Court to grant redress of proven allegations of rights denials. McDougall also noted that the Constitution establishes an ombudsman’s office, to investigate claims of discrimination made by individuals, and also caters for human rights commissions including the ERC.

However, McDougall said that at the time of her visit only the ERC had been fully established and functioning, though there were issues about whether it was constituted in accordance with the Constitution.  The government noted that the ERC, which has primarily functioned by holding public hearings and issuing reports, has submitted numerous special reports to the National Assembly since 2003. With support from the UNDP Social Cohesion Programme, the ERC has also held numerous peace meetings and it also conducted a series of cross-country multi-stakeholder forums prior to the 2006 general elections, which were without violence.
The ERC held a special series of public consultations on the perceived needs of the
Afro-Guyanese community in November 2007 and the government noted that while it documented a number of criticisms and weaknesses, no significant issues of discrimination emerged. Additionally, the ERC has investigated claims of discrimination but none have been substantiated, while the Labour Ministry has received no such claims in the last five years.

According to McDougall the government emphasizes that the constitutional reform process of 1999 to 2003, engaged thousands of people in cross-country consultations, led by the multiparty parliamentary Constitutional Reform Commission. In particular, it boasts that the human rights section of the Constitution is entrenched and any person can go to the courts on a constitutional motion on any perceived or real violation of their human rights.

Nevertheless, McDougall said she encountered claims of widespread and institutionalized discrimination against members of the Afro-Guyanese community and Indigenous peoples. “Some described the ‘victimization’ of poor Afro-Guyanese and an informal system of rights and privileges in society to which they lack access,” she said. “Others believe that long-term and deeply entrenched exclusion has resulted in the significant degeneration of sectors of Afro-Guyanese communities.” She added that the manifestations of that exclusion are increasing poverty and the attendant social problems such acts as robberies, assaults and killings, domestic violence, rape and substance abuse.

The government, however, in its response to the report, challenged McDougall to offer enlightenment as to the claims of “widespread and institutionalized” discrimination against Afro-Guyana and the Indigenous peoples. It said the reason given for the level of criminality is unacceptable as criminality is not exclusive to one ethnic group. “This is in itself a racist statement,” it added. “Furthermore, the level of domestic violence and substance abuse crosses race, class, religion, geography,” it said.

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