Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
How many of us are aware that way back in 1997 – some 23 years ago – the then leaders of our Caribbean Community (CARICOM) determined that each CARICOM Member State should set up an independent National Committee to receive and look into complaints of human and civil rights abuses, and having done so, to report said abuses to the annual CARICOM Heads of Government Conference via the Secretary General of CARICOM, for follow-up action?
Well, this was the central plank of the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society that our Heads of Government adopted at CARICOM’s eighth Inter-Sessional Meeting in St. John’s, Antigua, in February 1997.
Back then, the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society was deemed to constitute the very “soul” of the Community, and it committed CARICOM Governments to a general obligation to “respect the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual without distinction as to age, colour, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender… race, religion or social class”, and to adhere to such specific obligations as:
(1) The States shall ensure the existence of a fair and open democratic system through the holding of free elections… underpinned by an electoral system in which all can have confidence and which will ensure the free expression of the will of the people;
(2) The States, in order to ensure morality in public affairs, agree that holders of public office.. shall so order their affairs that such ordering gives no cause for conflict to arise or to appear to arise between their private interests and their duties to the public;
(3) The States agree to establish a Code governing the conduct of the holders of public office and all those who exercise power, the exercise of which affects or may affect the public interest;
(4) The States shall undertake to ensure that all persons are treated fairly, humanely and equally by public authorities and holders of public office;
(5) The States undertake to preserve and respect the existence of an independent public service with attractive career opportunities open to all on the basis of merit;
(6) The States shall undertake to ensure that in the process of governance, there is no victimization of any person;
(7) For the promotion of policies and measures aimed at strengthening gender equality, all women have equal rights with men… such rights include the right not to be discriminated against by reason of marital status, pregnancy, lactation or health-related matters which affect older women;
(8) The States undertake to provide protection for workers against arbitrary dismissal;
(9) The States recognise that each culture has a dignity and a value which shall be respected and that every person has the right to preserve and to develop his or her culture… and to participate in the cultural life of his or her choice;
(10) The States undertake to ensure that every person who has attained the age of retirement and does not have adequate means of subsistence is provided with social and medical assistance.
These are a mere sample of the many rights that the Charter of Civil Society conferred on the citizens of our Community under such headings as Women’s Rights, Children’s Rights, Cultural Diversity, Rights of Disabled Persons, Participation in the Economy, Rights of the Family, Environmental Rights, and the list goes on.
The Charter also stipulated that the above-mentioned National Committee should comprise representatives of the State, representatives of other social partners, and “such other persons of high moral character and recognised competence in their respective fields of endeavour”.
It further goes on to state that the National Committee shall “receive reports of allegations of breaches of, or non-compliance with, the provisions of this Charter attributed to the State or to one or more social partners”.
And, once the National Committee has received any such report, it “shall notify the State or social partners of the receipt of the allegation and request their comments thereon, and the National Committee shall report to the Secretary General (of CARICOM) on allegations received, together with their comments thereon, including their own views on the matter”.
Thereafter, “the Secretary-General shall submit annually for consideration by the Conference (of Heads of Government)… reports received from the National Committees”.
And once the Heads of Government have considered and made some determination on these reports, “the Secretary General shall inform the States and their National Committees of the results of the deliberations of the Conference… together with any recommendations emanating from their consideration of reported violations and non-compliance”.
It should also be noted that the Charter also stipulates that once every three years our Governments must themselves submit their own reports to the Conference of Heads of Government on measures adopted by them and progress achieved (or not achieved) in compliance with the provisions of the Charter.
So, the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society ensures that if a citizen of any CARICOM State believes that his or her rights are being violated, he/she would not only have a national body to appeal to, but would also be assured that the matter would be brought to the attention of the highest deliberative body of our region – the CARICOM Heads of Government Conference.
What a tremendous sense of assurance this would give to Caribbean citizens who might consider that they are members of vulnerable groups or communities – members of racial, ethnic, cultural or religious minorities; members or supporters of Opposition political parties; members of the community of persons living with disabilities, and the list goes on.
But, the truly amazing thing is that 23 years after the historic 1997 Resolution establishing the Charter of Civil Society was adopted, and even after the CARICOM Secretariat has produced multiple copies of the Charter, the said Charter is yet to be implemented in the various member states of CARICOM! This is truly regrettable, for it means that we are either wittingly or unwittingly denying ourselves all the good that the operationalization of this Charter of Civil Society could, and would, deliver to our Community.
Our CARICOM Charter of Civil Society should have been implemented 23 years ago, and the failure to implement it must be considered a mistake of massive proportions. But, as a famous Barbadian calypso states: “Mistakes can be detected / Mistakes can be corrected.”
My recommendation is that we should all now make a collective effort right across our Caribbean Community to correct this glaring mistake.
Ambassador to Caricom,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
and Foreign Trade