Canada joins call for independent phantoms probe

Canada has joined the United Kingdom in urging an independent commission to probe allegations of grave human rights abuses and killings by the ‘phantom squad’ in Guyana and the government here says it already has a process in place for this.

Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett

At the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, several other western countries advocated independent investigations into complaints and possible violations of human rights committed by state security agencies. According to a draft report released by the UN, Canada has recommended that an independent commission, supported by international experts as necessary, investigate the allegations. Ottawa has also recommended to Georgetown that it invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to conduct an assessment of claims of torture here. There have been many complaints of torture at the hands of the security forces.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett in reply to the recommendations and comments made in Geneva said that while Guyana has endured severe challenges in the security sector, “the many interventions have started to bear fruit”. She said the administration of President Bharrat Jagdeo is committed to ensuring public safety and the protection of the rights of all citizens. The Minister said “the allegations of the phantom squad are currently being addressed and investigations are ongoing by the Guyana Police Force”. She said the public has been invited to assist in providing information that will aid in the successful completion of the investigations. One of the cases is currently before the court, she added. Critics have said the public has no confidence in this process and very little information has been offered to the police.

The issues were under the spotlight as the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) examined Guyana’s human rights record in Geneva, Switzerland last Tuesday.  Through the United Nations Human Rights Council UPR, 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 complied but without widespread local consultations. Minister Rodrigues-Birkett led Guyana’s delegation to Geneva. Last Friday the Working Group adopted the report on Guyana.

Excessive use of force

During the interactive session, the Canadian representative said that Ottawa appreciated Guyana’s efforts to reduce youth unemployment such as the Single Parent Assistance Programme. However, it was concerned with reports of the excessive use of force by security forces and the recent documented torture of 15-year-old Twyon Thomas by police officers. Ottawa is also concerned about alleged murders and extra judicial killings by members of the armed forces and the phantom squad. It said that Guyana should ensure thorough and independent investigations of all allegations of extrajudicial killings taking into account findings in the report of the United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues on the phantom death squad.

Guyana responded to the calls by Canada and the UK to set up an independent commission to investigate the abuses allegedly committed by the phantom squad, by saying that it will examine the recommendations and provide responses in due course but no later than the 15th session of the Human Rights Council in September this year.

Meantime, several other countries called for independent probes of human rights violations. The Netherlands said Georgetown should ensure that thorough and independent investigations take place into complaints of human rights violations by the police and army and that perpetrators are prosecuted and effective remedies are provided to the victims. Italy recommended that all complaints of human rights violations by the security forces be subject to immediate, accurate and independent investigations. Mexico said complaints and possible violations of human rights committed by state security agencies should be investigated in order to punish those responsible and avoid impunity. Sweden has called for thorough and impartial investigations into all allegations of killings, torture and physical abuse and the bringing to justice of anyone suspected of excessive use of force, torture or other human rights violations. Guyana says it support these recommendations and believes that they have already been implemented or are in the process of implementation.

In the interactive dialogue, in relation to the security sector, several countries also expressed concern. Brazil voiced concern about reports of ill treatment by police forces. The Netherlands was concerned about reports of the excessive use of force by the army and police forces, asking whether measures to ensure independent investigations were being considered. France welcomed legislative measures and specific mechanisms for the processing of complaints by victims of police abuse, but remained concerned at reported excessive use of force by the police. France inquired about how Guyana intended to stop that practice and ensure that complaints would lead to impartial investigations and prosecutions of alleged offenders whenever relevant. While highlighting the relevance of establishing five legislative commissions for human rights, Mexico underscored the importance of establishing an independent mechanism in conformity with the Paris Principles. Mexico noted the difficulties concerning the effective application of international human rights standards, suggesting that Guyana seek technical assistance from international and regional organizations for adequate implementation.

In response, Guyana’s delegation recalled measures relating to the modernization of the police force and the manner in which the administration of justice took place. In terms of pre-trial detention, no one could be held for longer than 72 hours unless an order of court was issued in that regard. With respect to detainees awaiting trial, the delegation recalled efforts to reduce the backlog of court cases. As for the appointment of independent commissions, the delegation described in detail the methodology for appointing the human rights commissions from among civil society, which would act as independent complaint mechanisms. This also applied to boards and commissions of inquiry investigating allegations of abuse, excessive force and torture.

Meantime, the United Kingdom believed it important that the Human Rights Commission and its associated commissions become operational as soon as possible. It also welcomed steps to identify and prosecute individual security agency personnel for torture and mistreatment. Australia expressed concern about allegations of police brutality and the incarceration and torture of minors. Sweden mentioned reported allegations of excessive use of force and numerous instances of torture by security and police forces, and noted that impunity for Government officials was a “serious problem”. Sweden inquired about what measures had been taken to investigate alleged human rights violations committed by a death squad between 2006 and 2008. It remained concerned about reported extrajudicial killings and use of excessive force by police.

In response, the Guyana delegation said that with respect to extrajudicial killings, in recent times there had been considerable “improvement”.

Several countries had submitted questions before Guyana’s report was reviewed and Rodrigues-Birkett responded in her opening statement. She said that since the restoration of democracy in 1992, Guyana has managed to ensure that there is no reversal or regression of human rights, nor the overall democratic gains, despite several major challenges including a period of upsurge in violent crimes, a hostile international economic environment and the intensification of the negative consequences of climate change. “If anything, while there remain significant challenges, we have made major advancements in several areas”, the minister contended.

The revised Guyana Constitution is based on a model of inclusive governance which is unique, Rodrigues-Birkett said.  She said the revised Constitution embodies several important provisions including the appointment of five Rights Commissions – Ethnic Relations, Women and Gender, Children, Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights.  “Members of these Commissions are appointed through a parliamentary consensual mechanism which requires the participation of civil society in the nomination process”, she pointed out.  “We acknowledge that the process for establishing the Rights Commissions has been a slow one since Parliamentary consensus is required by the Constitution. However, Guyana believes this model is the most suitable to the country’s political and ethnic complexity and thus reduces the recourse to violence which has been a feature in the past.  However, in 2009 there has been acceleration in the process hence the optimism that these Commissions will be fully functional in the near future”, she said. “As has been the case with the Ethnic Relations Commission, Guyana remains convinced that these Rights Commissions will serve to promote, educate and protect the rights of those they are intended to serve as well as provide an opportunity to receive and address complaints of violations of human rights”, the minster added.

In relation to the questions relating to the security sector, excessive use of force, torture and human rights training, Rodrigues-Birkett said that the Constitution of Guyana protects citizens from torture, and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and punishment. “As stated in the report Guyana experienced a very violent crime wave in 2002-2008 which led to hundreds of people being murdered including children. As a result, heightened attention and release of increased budgetary and technical resources have been made available to enhance the capacity of the security sector to protect the rights of its citizens”, she declared.

The minister said that there is greater involvement of national stakeholders in crime and security matters pointing to the four meetings on crime and security in 2008 and one in 2009 between the heads of the disciplined forces, the government and the stakeholders from religious bodies, labour, business and parliamentary political parties. She also cited the establishment of the National Commission on Law and Order in 2005 which continues to function and holds outreaches with various stakeholders and communities and makes recommendations accordingly.

Meantime, the Minister pointed out that 30 police stations have been renovated. Most recently the Brickdam Police Lock-up (a source of complaints for over 30 years) and 11 other lock ups were renovated, she said, adding that this process is ongoing and will result in the revamping of all police stations throughout Guyana in order to enhance the environmental and physical conditions for police to work in, improved facilities to encourage the public to make reports with safeguards (two-way mirrors for identification parades, separate rooms for reports made by women and children (domestic and sexual violence) and improvement in the detention centres. A programme of installing close circuit televisions in Police stations has commenced and this will enhance accountability and transparency of the police ranks, she said.

Rodrigues-Birkett also pointed out the new Security Sector Reform Plan – “Guyanese designed and owned -which has emerged over the last 3 years through a consultative process and despite the lack of funding, the country is committed to its implementation which has already begun”. The UK withdrew funding for this programme after disagreements with the Government of Guyana.

She also said that the Constitution was amended to create a new Parliamentary Standing Committee to oversee the Security Sector in 2009 and the terms of reference for the new committee was approved by the National Assembly in early 2010.
Human rights education

On human rights education and training, she said this is included in the curriculum of the Training Programmes for recruits of the Guyana Police Force (GPF), Guyana Defence Force and The Guyana Prison Service and continues at the Cadet level of the Police, Army and Prison staff.

With regards to accountability and transparency, she said that within the State apparatus, the Police Complaints Authority receives and investigates complaints made against Members of the Force. She said that independently, the GPF has established mechanisms to handle individuals’ enquiries and complaints about the activities of members of the Police Force through public days facilitated by the Commissioner of Police and the various Divisional Commanders as well as through direct complaints to the Office of Professional Responsibility which investigates complaints by members of the public against the police.

The Foreign Affairs Minister also noted the High Level Commission of Inquiry on the Disciplined Forces in 2003-2004 held hearings to investigate allegations against the Disciplined Forces. One hundred and sixty-four recommendations were made by the Commission of Inquiry to the Parliament which included the code of conduct by the Disciplined Forces with respect to persons in detention. These recommendations were sent to a Parliamentary Special Select Committee in the 8th Parliament in 2005 but did not complete its work prior to 2006 election. These recommendations were resubmitted to a Parliamentary body in 2008 and it is expected to complete its work by mid- 2010, she said. She also said the second Commission of Enquiry into allegations of extra-judicial killings in 2004-2005 vindicated the then Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, who nevertheless resigned.

She added that in relation to Thomas’ case in October 2009 and “the so called Phantom Squad of 2002-2006” the Government of Guyana wishes to indicate that it has always had a zero tolerance policy towards torture. She said two police ranks have been charged in Thomas’ case and the Doctor involved in the case has been censured by the Medical Council of Guyana. “Through proper leadership and supervision at all levels of the police force particularly at the station precinct level coupled with the installation of security cameras will monitor police interrogation methods so that such cases as that of Twyon Thomas will be stopped”, she said.

The minister said while Guyana remains committed to improving and strengthening the human rights of our population, there are challenges which must be acknowledged and confronted.  She said Guyana remains committed to complying with all its Treaty obligations including that of reporting but does not enjoy the kind of human and financial resources to staff a department for this purpose. She said notwithstanding these constraints, there is now a Unit headed by Presidential Advisor on Governance, Gail Teixeira, “hence the submission of some of our long outstanding Reports and responses to several questionnaires.  We intend to bring our country up to date in this regard by the end of 2010”, she said.


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