Suriname and health meetings

Disease is no respecter of borders, which is why a regional meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) comprising representatives from Guyana, Brazil and Suriname convened early this month to discuss indigenous health in their common border areas. All well and good, were it not for the fact that Suriname, as has become her habit in recent decades, introduced an extraneous and contentious issue into the proceedings, if only indirectly.

Leaving aside the spurious nature of what Suriname claimed, it was also a blatant insult to the host, ie Guyana. According to a press release from the Department of Public Information, during a power point presentation by the Surinamese, it was observed that the New River Triangle had been shown as part of their territory on the map they displayed. The release went on to state that this area belonged to Guyana, and was internationally recognized as such ‒ which is indeed the case.

The Guyana delegation in the circumstances was restrained and polite, Foreign Service Officer Royston Alkins being quoted as stating: “The inclusion of Guyana’s sovereign territory in the map is contrary to the internationally recognised jurisdictions of Guyana and Suriname and is clearly a breach of international protocol.”  He was also reported as going on to comment that the two countries enjoyed very good relations, and that Guyana was committed to “working with Suriname” to strengthen that relationship.

Mr Alkins also revealed that this was not the first time that Guyana had raised these concerns in an ACTO forum, and that “once again [this country] was pleading with Suriname to desist from breaches of international protocols.” Naturally too, he asked that our eastern neighbour’s document be expunged from the records.

It might be added that ACTO is not the only organization where this has been a problem; Suriname has had no inhibitions about following Venezuela’s example and mounting this stunt at all kinds of fora, both locally and elsewhere. Arguably the most notorious was the occasion of a Caricom Heads of Government meeting in Georgetown in 1995, when Suriname was formally admitted to the Caribbean Community, and prior to which President Venetiaan of Suriname addressed this country’s Parliament. Paramaribo bought the centre pages of the two local newspapers of the time ‒ SN and GC ‒ for a prestige advertisement, the top part of which accommodated a map of Suriname to which the New River Triangle had been appended.  (This newspaper edited it; the state paper omitted to do so.)

In the first place, we should not be pleading with Suriname to “desist from breaches of international protocols”; we are not supplicants in this instance, she is in dereliction of her duty and responsibilities. A discussion on cross-border health matters in addition to a whole host of other consultations of one kind or another are definitely not the occasion for territorial claims; there are designated avenues for that. As in the case of the neighbour to the west, this is a bullying tactic, and contrary to Mr Alkins’ courteous response, does not reflect “good relations” between the two states.

His insistence that our neighbour’s map be expunged from the records is certainly the right approach, but it is still too late to erase from the minds of those who were present Suriname’s subliminal propagandizing.

One cannot help but feel that there is a case for making clear to regional organisations especially, before meetings are held, that Guyana will not accept this kind of behaviour from a neighbour in discussions which are not related to territorial matters. After all, our boundaries are internationally recognized. Furthermore, they should be given a gentle warning that the representatives or delegates for this country might well be prepared to walk out of any meeting where they are ambushed by fantasy maps. It has been going on for far too long.

It no doubt will be argued in opposition to this that where health matters at least are concerned as opposed to other issues, disease cannot be corralled within national boundaries. One presumes that the Guyana delegation’s reluctance in Lethem to take more affirmative action, is related to the fact that all nations in the area need to commit to the same strategy in order to deal with problems like malaria or measles, say. Walking out of a health meeting, therefore, is simply counter-productive.

However, if, as in part suggested above, Guyana starts putting pressure on international agencies which arrange regional encounters – especially in relation to diseases ‒ to lay down guidelines for participation prior to the meeting, and these guidelines include no tendentious maps to be shown, then there may be more success. Suriname, for instance, could then be asked to remove such a map by the relevant organization for having breached the guidelines. Protocols which are unwritten, even if they are accepted by everyone else, clearly have no status in the eyes of Paramaribo officials.

It might be noted in passing that there are genuine health issues on our western frontier too, but there, as has been reported both last month and this, it is a case of the people of Venezuela who live in the mining regions coming to Guyana for medical treatment. This is not an abuse by the authorities to the west to take territorial advantage – although there could always be unexpected developments for which there would need to be advance contingency planning – at the moment it is an attempt by the ordinary people to simply get help.

If Venezuela in general is in a state of shortages and chaos, the mining areas in particular are suffering, with armed gangs roaming around and little in the form of law and order in evidence. Shortages are particularly acute in these regions, not least in terms of medical supplies. It is to the credit of the authorities here that they are prepared to offer humanitarian medical assistance to Venezuelans – and Guyanese living in Venezuela – particularly where malaria is concerned.

They are sensitive to the fact that political borders will not halt the spread of maladies.

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