Guyana to defend rights record at UN

-UK, Sweden pose questions on phantom squad

Guyana is today slated to defend its human rights record before the United Nations in Geneva and it faces a barrage of questions on issues such as the phantom squad, torture, capital punishment, violence against women and gay and lesbian rights.

The grilling in the Swiss city will take place in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under which the human rights record of each state is extensively reviewed every four years.

Each member state is required to produce a national report in accordance with a UN Human Rights Council resolution and Guyana has complied. However, there was no widespread publicizing of the preparation of the report here or an invitation for civil society input. Georgetown has also not publicized today’s session or announced who will be representing the country if at all.

The United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Norway are among the countries that have submitted questions.  According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights website the UK submitted questions in advance including whether enough had been done to address allegations of government links to the 2002-6 phantom squad.

“Serious allegations of Government links to a ‘Phantom Squad’ in 2002-6, led by a convicted drug trafficker, have been a regular focus of political and media concern and debate in recent years. Does the Government of Guyana feel it has addressed these allegations sufficiently and would it consider an independent investigation to bring to justice those responsible and bring closure to this issue, including for the relatives of the numerous victims?” the UK question read.

London, which withdrew an offer of security sector assistance after deep differences with the Guyana Government, has also asked for an outline of what “concrete” steps will be taken within security agencies to ensure that recent cases of torture such as that of the teenager who was burnt on his genitals will be prevented in the future. The UK also posed questions to Georgetown on to what extent it thought that ethnic discrimination and alienation are problems for the country and when Guyana will end its state monopoly on radio broadcasts. It also quizzed the government on the extent of national consultation on the report which is up for consideration today.

Norway, which recently entered a huge forest protection agreement with Guyana, has tabled a question on what measures have been taken to date to create mechanisms “to fulfil the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted in accordance with international human rights law”. The question will resonate here following the recent flare-up between the government and the Amerindian Peoples Association on whether there had been free, prior and informed consent in relation to the government’s much-vaunted Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS). Norway’s funding pledge of a maximum of US$250 million over five years is predicated on the achievement of many of the LCDS benchmarks.

Oslo is also seeking to discover what steps the government will take to engage civil society organizations on the following up and implementing of the recommendations from members of the UN Human Rights Council.

A slew of questions have been forwarded by other countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Czech Republic. They ask for information on child prostitution, allegations of widespread police brutality, criminalizing of homosexual relations and cross-dressing. Sweden also posed a question on what measures the government had taken to “thoroughly investigate the human rights abuses allegedly committed by a “death squad” between 2002 and 2006.

Eight human rights groups also made submissions including Amnesty International (AI) and a group that includes the Guyana-based Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD).

Amnesty expressed concern at reports of excessive use of force by the police and army and referred to the torture of the teen last year and two others. AI also cited the allegations about the workings of the phantom squad and its connections to serving and former police officers and government officials. It recommended that Guyana conduct a “fully independent” probe of human rights abuses by a `death squad’ and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. The human rights group also voiced concern over the high levels of physical and sexual violence against women and children while recognizing recent steps by the government to address violence along with the recently approved Sexual Offences Bill.

The Sexual Rights Initiative in conjunction with SASOD raised concerns about the consistency of response to Lesbian and Gay persons who are in need of health care among other issues.
National Report

The report submitted by Guyana describes what it said was the inclusive governance model and referred to provision for the appointment of human rights commissions. Nearly a decade later several of these commissions are still to be activated including the overarching Human Rights Council and this point was noted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which prepared a report for the UPR.

Guyana’s 25-page report also highlighted the committee system in Parliament, cabinet outreaches and national stakeholder fora as evidence of the inclusive model of governance. It averred that human rights are protected through the courts and service commissions. It addresses efforts in relation to culture, food security, housing and water, social security, health care, education and the right to work, labour, market training and participation in the workforce.

In what will likely be the most controversial section of the report, the government sets out what steps have been taken to ensure freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Critics have often charged that the government and the security forces have turned a blind eye to many acts of torture and have acted in only the most extreme cases. Indeed, the paper prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the UPR pointed out that in 2008 the special rapporteur on torture sent a communication regarding three men who died in police custody. It also adverted to the report of the independent expert on minority issues which noted concerns by Afro-Guyanese and others regarding the killings of numerous Afro-Guyanese men since 2002 and the existence of the phantom squad. “According to the independent expert, the perception was of a collusion of government and law enforcement with criminals to facilitate the targeting and killing of young Afro-Guyanese known to the security services. The government rejected the allegations,” the report to the UPR pointed out.

The government also talked up electoral reforms, administration of justice and achievements in poverty reduction. It also highlighted initiatives on Amerindian issues, rights of the child and measures to address violence against women and cited the various challenges to national security.

The national report asserted that Guyana upholds the right to freedom of expression but made no mention of the 17-month cut-off of state advertising to Stabroek News which was widely condemned here and abroad as an attack by the government of Guyana on press freedom.

According to the UN human rights web site, “The UPR was created through the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 by resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council itself. It is a cooperative process which, by 2011, will have reviewed the human rights records of every country. Currently, no other universal mechanism of this kind exists.

The UPR is one of the key elements of the new Council which reminds States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ultimate aim of this new mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.”

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