Guyana’s national report to the United Nations: Serious issues of public policy

By Dr Bertrand G Ramcharan

Under arrangements instituted in 2006, every country in the world is required, once every four years, to produce and defend at the United Nations a report on its policies and strategies for promoting the right to development, economic, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights.

The procedures set up at the UN require governments to engage in broad-based consultations with civil society and to draw up a report, based on UN guidelines, that faithfully reflects progress achieved and problems being encountered.  Each country’s report is discussed for some four hours at the UN, alongside information assembled by the UN Secretariat from NGOs and from UN treaty bodies and UN fact-finders. So far 112 out of 192 UN members have reported and Guyana’s report will be discussed today in Geneva.

Of the countries that have reported so far, some, such as Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, have made honest and good faith efforts to present the progress, problems and challenges in their countries. Some countries have presented reports that can, at best, be described as whitewashes. NGOs have characterized the reports of some countries as being transparently dishonest. Quite a few countries, while submitting their reports to the UN, have kept them hidden from their own populations.

Guyana’s report has just been published at the UN and has so far not had much distribution inside the country (UN Document: A/HRC/WG.6/8/GUY/1).

The UN Secretariat compilations of materials from NGOs, treaty bodies and fact-finders have not yet been published. But Amnesty International has issued a document complaining of excessive use of force by security forces, lack of prosecution for perpetrators and violence against women.

In its report, Guyana takes the view that consultation is an on-going process rather than a one-off event. In short there have been no specific consultations with civil society organizations in Guyana on the preparation of the country’s report.  The claim is made that “every major policy, draft legislation, and program of national importance is subjected to consultation with the relevant sectors/communities of Guyana.”  It will be interesting to see how the lack of specific consultation on the report is received at the UN.

On Guyana’s political framework the report asserts that Guyana, a secular state in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, is now “a unique, inclusive, governance model”. “This model of inclusivity ensures the critical participation of all stakeholders in matters affecting them…”

Details are provided of the five constitutional commissions in the area of human rights and of the police and judicial services commissions.

Equality and non-discrimination are, the report asserts, basic tenets of the Guyanese public order. The report asserts that Guyana upholds the right to freedom of expression as a cornerstone of its democratic state.

The report places great store on Guyana’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme (PRSP) and on its Low-Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS). Based on the national development strategy in these two documents, the Government declares that its stated objectives are to reduce poverty in order to provide equal access to all entitlements and benefits that Guyana can afford to offer its people.  Noting that climate change is impacting negatively on food security and sustainable environmental health, the report claims that Guyana has made positive strides to mitigate its effects through Guyana’s policy on avoiding deforestation and through the LCDS model. It adds that the Government of Guyana recognizes that the right to water is an essential component for the fulfillment of the right to life, health, food and an adequate standard of living.

The report asserts that the Government of Guyana has adopted a rights-based approach to social security and that the Government ensures that health care delivery is based on equity and accountability. Guyana’s educational system, it continues, is based on the principles of accessibility, availability, freedom to choose and to establish educational institutions. Guyana’s education policy, it posits, ensures that all its citizens are given opportunities to achieve their full potential through equal access to quality education. Guyana guarantees the right to work, the right to hold industrial strikes, the right to associate and the right to bargain collectively.

The report asserts that torture and inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment is prohibited in Guyana. There is no discussion of recent claims of excesses by the law enforcement and security forces, a subject of much attention in Guyana in recent months. The Government notes that it has invested on modernizing the administration of justice sector and promoting access to justice.

The report has sections on the rights of Amerindians, on the rights of the child and on the rights of women and girls. It provides information on the process of granting legal titles to Amerindian lands and on efforts to initiate special developmental programmes in Amerindian communities to improve their overall standard of living and their full integration into the society. Guyana, it continues, has enacted laws to punish and redress wrongs to women and girls at home, the workplace and any other place.

As will be seen from foregoing, the report paints, overall, a positive picture of national development and the protection of human rights in Guyana. Guyanese will judge for themselves the optimistic assessments provided in the report and, when it is discussed at the UN, one will be able to see how these claims are received and evaluated. In the area of problems being encountered, the report does not discuss the contentions of civil society in Guyana that problems exist in the areas of the rule of law, respect for human dignity, equality of opportunity, and excesses by law enforcement and security personnel. Rather, the report refers to challenges to national security. It asserts that crime and violence pose a number of national security challenges. It notes that approximately three hundred persons are deported to Guyana annually. It refers to Guyana’s drug problem and its anti-narcotics strategy.  It recognizes that human trafficking is a complex transnational problem with economic and social roots.

A report of this nature should be broadly discussed and evaluated in Guyana. At its heart it is, or should be, one of the fundamental policy documents of the country, in which the essence of the country, its governance arrangements, development policies and strategies and its efforts for justice, dignity and respect for the human rights of all Guyanese are presented in an honest and faithful manner.

The task of an Institute of Public Policy is to present the core tenets of the report and to invite scrutiny on the part of the Guyanese society. Now that the report has been submitted to the UN, it would be fair that the Government publish and make it widely available to all parts of the country and it would be a service to the country for all in a position to do so to give the report deep scrutiny.

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Alongside the government’s report, will be two other documents compiled by the UN Secretariat: a compilation of the recommendations of UN treaty bodies and experts; and a compilation of submissions received from NGOs.

In this article I summarise the salient aspects of the last two documents (A/HRC/WG.6/8/GUY 2 and GUY 3).

The value of a process in which a government’s report is discussed alongside relevant information from expert and NGO sources is that the government in question, if it chooses to, is able to benefit from an interaction with the international community, to explain developments in the country, to respond to questions, and to learn from the insights of others. Not everything that experts and NGOs say is necessarily valid, and a government is able to choose which recommendations of its peers it wishes to accept or not.

For Guyanese, the process provides a mirror of where the country has reached and what it might do to enhance the quality of justice and fairness in the society. It is therefore of great importance that the process taking place in Geneva is widely known inside and outside the country.

Guyanese will be pleased to know that one of the NGOs highlighted Guyana’s comprehensive laws for the protection of religious freedom and conscience, and noted that there had been very few instances of religious discrimination. In most circumstances the abuse was from a private citizen who was then punished according to law. This was the view of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP). It warms the heart to read this. It tells us that we are fundamentally decent and good people who deserve a chance to develop and prosper.

It also felt good to read that the UN Statistics Division indicated that the total population using an improved drinking water source was 93 percent in 2006, even if there was much to be done to reduce inequities in access to safe and affordable drinking water and the prevailing low levels of awareness of what constitutes safe drinking water and sanitation, and moreso even if Guyana still needed to develop and implement a national policy, a legal framework and strategies on integrated solid waste management.

Serious issues of public policy are raised in the experts and NGO reports that would deserve the closest examination from Guyanese civil society and from the Government. Let us emphasise that our purpose in identifying these issues is to invite reflection from Guyanese, not necessarily to adopt lock, stock and barrel the assessments made in the two reports.

After the reports have been discussed in Geneva we shall write a follow-up essay indicating how the Government responded to the questions raised and which recommendations of its peers it accepted.

First, constitutional issues are raised.  In 2006 a UN treaty body recommended that Guyana include among the prohibited grounds of discrimination in article 40(1) of the Constitution ‘national or ethnic origin’. Further, the Committee recommended that the prohibition of racial discrimination in that article should apply with respect to the enjoyment of all rights and freedoms protected under the international convention against racial discrimination. These are serious recommendations that would warrant the attention of Parliament.

One of the UN treaty bodies recommended in 2006 that Guyana amend the Constitution and delete the provision that allows the employment of part-time judges, which, in the Committee’s view, could jeopardise their independence and impartiality. In the circumstances of Guyana there may be different views of this issue. But it would serve the country well for Parliament, with the assistance of the Bar and the public, to discuss this issue and to come to a national consensus.

Second, there are issues touching on the compatibility of Guyana’s laws with international human rights standards. In 2005 the treaty body responsible for women’s rights expressed concern about the persistence of discriminatory legal provisions against women, particularly the Criminal Law (Offences) Act. The specific issue in question was the provision of the Act that made it a criminal offence for a girl of 16 years to have sexual intercourse with a relative, making her liable for imprisonment for up to seven years. The Committee was also concerned that the Married Persons Property Act prevented non-working spouses from acquiring the same rights in matters of division of property. The Committee called for Guyana to undertake comprehensive legal reform in line with the provisions of the Convention prohibiting discrimination against women.

In 2009, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern that Guyana has not yet developed domestic procedures and institutions for handling  asylum applications and recommended that the Government initiate the drafting and adoption of national refugee legislation. It has offered to provide technical support in drafting the legislation and advising generally on these issues. This is a recent recommendation, but it concerns an important structural issue.

Two other legal issues are raised that merit reflection: the powers of the Minister of Labour to order compulsory arbitration of labour disputes, which the ILO considers at variance with ILO norms, and the veto power of the Minister of Mines under the Amerindian Act, section 50 of which apparently grants the Minister the ability to override any community that has decided against an application for mining activities.

Third, in the area of fundamental rights, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern in 2000 that freedom of expression may be unduly restricted by reason of the government’s monopoly of radio broadcasting.

The committee was also concerned at the lack of specific remedies for journalists subjected to violence or harassment by the police or other authorities. It recommended that Guyana remove restrictions on freedom of expression and ensure that effective remedies are available to any person whose rights have been violated.

Fourth, on the principle of equality, in 2006 a UN treaty body noted that the historic ethnic polarisation of the society and of the main political parties had reinforced prejudice and intolerance in the country. The UN treaty body expressed concern about the absence of a national strategy or plan of action that systematically addresses any inequalities that members of indigenous communities face in the enjoyment of their rights. This is surely something that Parliament could discuss. The same committee has pointed out that only few complaints about acts of racial discrimination actually reach the Ethnic Relations Commission and that none reach the courts, which, it felt, can be partly attributed to the high standard of proof required in judicial proceedings and the difficulties in securing witnesses.

Fifth, on the rights of children, a UN Committee recommended in 2004 that Guyana reduce infant mortality rates by improving prenatal care and preventing communicable diseases, continue to combat malaria, and address the issue of malnutrition through education and by ensuring the availability of adequate nutrition among mothers and children. A UN Statistics Division report indicated that the under-five mortality rate per 1,000 live births was 60 in 2007, and that the proportion of children under 5 moderately or severely underweight was 12.4 percent in 2006.

In 2004 a UN treaty body expressed concern at the high dropout rates from school, especially among boys. It was also concerned at the decrease in the quality of education and at the widening educational disparities in the hinterland regions. It noted with concern that the number of children who were not registered at birth was significant, particularly in remote areas and among Amerindians.

Sixth, on the rights of women, in 2005 a UN treaty body expressed concern at the high and growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS among women, especially younger women. Amnesty International has expressed concern about the high levels of physical and sexual violence against women and girls in Guyana, adding that at the end of 2008 the Guyana Police Force had received and investigated 2,811 reports of domestic violence in the country. AI recognised recent steps by the Government, such as the National Domestic Violence Policy launched in June 2008, and welcomed the tabling of the Sexual Offences Bill in July 2009.

Seventh, on the rights of indigenous peoples, in 2006 a UN treaty body expressed deep concern that the average life expectancy among indigenous peoples was low, and that they were reportedly disproportionately affected by malaria and environmental pollution, in particular mercury and bacterial contamination of rivers caused by mining activities. In 2008 the Government of Guyana indicated that health centres and health posts had been constructed in almost every Amerindian village.

In 2006 a UN treaty body expressed deep concern about the lack of legal recognition of the rights of ownership and possession of indigenous communities over the lands which they have traditionally occupied, and about Guyana’s practice of granting land titles that excluded bodies of waters and subsoil resources. The government in its report indicated that it had a programme underway of granting titles to indigenous lands. At the same time, the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) noted that of the 111,000 square kilometres that are claimed by Amerindians, so far only 16,000 have been titled for them.

Eighth, on issues of economic and social rights, UN data point to the ‘systemic nature’ of poverty in Guyana, a challenge requiring long-term and sustained multi-sectoral attention. A UN survey conducted in 2006 found that 36.1 percent of the Guyanese population was unable to meet the outlay required for a basket of basic food and non-food items that define the national poverty line.

The same survey found that 18.6 percent of the population was living in absolute poverty. In the same year, a UN treaty body, while noting the existence of a National Development Strategy and a poverty reduction strategy paper, was disappointed that these policies insufficiently addressed the gender dimensions of poverty. It urged Guyana to make the promotion of gender equality an explicit component of its national development strategies and encouraged programmes that target vulnerable groups of women, such as Amerindian women and poor women living in rural and hinterland areas.

A 2004 WHO report found that while access to health care was a right established by the Constitution, due to geography, scarce resources and maldistribution of staff, the access to health services was inequitable.

Ninth, on civil and political rights, UN treaty bodies have expressed concern about reports of widespread police brutality and the lack of accountability of the Guyana Police Force. They have urged Guyana to take immediate steps to prevent acts such as the alleged practice of extra-judicial killings by members of the police and to guarantee that prompt and impartial inquiries are conducted, perpetrators are prosecuted and effective remedies are provided to victims.

Amnesty International expressed concern at reports of excessive use of force by the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Defence Force, including beatings and unlawful killings. It called on Guyana to ensure that all complaints of human rights violations by the security forces are subject to immediate, thorough and independent investigation and, if state agents are charged with such crimes, that their cases are brought to trial in an expeditious manner.

Tenth, on Guyana’s discharge of its reporting obligations under international human rights treaties that it has ratified, it is overdue in a number of instances, particularly with regard to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Guyana last reported under this treaty in 1995 and reports are overdue since 2000 and 2005 respectively.

Given the finding that poverty is ‘systemic’ in Guyana, a grave finding, the submission of the overdue reports on economic, social and cultural rights should be a matter of the highest priority.

Eleventh, there are a number of international human rights treaties that Guyana has not ratified, including the convention against genocide, the convention on refugees and stateless persons, the UNESCO convention against discrimination in education, and the Optional Protocal to the Convention against torture, which provides for regular visits to prisons and places of detention. Other countries are rushing to ratify this Optional Protocol.

Twelfth, although Guyana withdrew its acceptance of the individual petitions procedure under the covenant on civil and political rights, the Human Rights Committee still considers and adopts views on petitions.

Since 1998 the Human Rights Committee has adopted Views (decisions) on nine individual petitions, finding violations of various provisions of the civil and political rights covenant, including on the rights of detainees to be treated humanely, equality before the law, and trial within a reasonable time. The committee has not received any information from Guyana regarding follow-up to the nine cases on which decisions were adopted.

Guyanese will see for themselves, that serious and compelling issues of public policy are raised by UN treaty bodies and experts. What will Guyana do about these issues, and when? The Guyana Institute of Public Policy seeks to present to Guyanese issues warranting urgent reflection. It issues a strong appeal to Parliament to hold a debate on these issues. It specifically calls on the Speaker of Parliament, an apparent Presidential aspirant, to facilitate a discussion of these and related issues in Parliament.

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