Can we trust the HRC?

| 03/03/2009

It’s fun watching the stand-off between the PPM leaders and the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee (HRC) over the discrimination clause of the draft Bill of Rights.

The Chairman is 100% correct in her argument, and it doesn’t say much for the legal skills of the PPM that they can’t seem to see that. It’s obvious enough. But no committee chairman can ever take the support of his or her rank and file for granted, and one wonders what opposition the HRC’s Chair faces inside her Committee.

In a public letter, one of the members has written, “All of our members (except 3) are Caymanians and we have our country’s best interests at heart.” What’s that all about? What do the words in brackets signify? That the three non-Caymanians can’t be relied on to care for the interests of Cayman? That’s the obvious meaning. Otherwise, why even mention nationalities? Based on what she says and writes we can trust the Chairman herself to press for the human-rights ideal of non-discrimination. But can we trust the Committee as a whole?

I resigned from the HRC in late 2006 because I could not persuade it to speak out against the denial of some basic human rights to Cuban boat-people and to our low-paid migrant workers. The denial amounted to discrimination against them. The Cubans were at the time being routinely denied food, water and medicine for their onward journeys. The migrants were routinely exploited (as they still are) with the tacit consent of our Immigration authorities.

Some of our Committee members were too anxious to avoid treading on any political toes to do their job properly – upholding Britain’s treaty obligations in respect of human rights. Great care went into the selection of issues to be taken up. Antennae nervously probed the air for political disapproval. We beat the bushes for safe topics, as though pleasing the ruling Party was our Committee’s purpose in life.
I’ve lost track of who the members of the HRC are these days. But some of them may well be driven by the same fear of offending politicians as some of their predecessors were.

The present Chairman may be braver and more passionate than some of her colleagues, in pursuing the moral high ground of human rights. Some of the colleagues may have settled for the same diluted standards as the PPM leadership has done. Who knows? Will the Committee knuckle under? Will the Book of Leviticus become an Appendix to our constitutional Bill of Rights? We must hope not; but you never know.

The term “human rights” is special. It was not chosen casually, by the creators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty years ago. They deliberately rejected the concept of tribal rights and defined a set of ideals appropriate for all humans on the planet. Then, they challenged the nations’ governments to live up to them. By and large, the challenge has been shrugged off. Nationalism and tribalism have fought back hard. By and large, politicians in all nations have advanced their own opinions of what rights and privileges are appropriate for their subjects.

Britain, the USA and other Western countries have been the most amenable to the basic idea of moving towards the ideals set out in the Declaration. We in Cayman have more freedoms as a British colony than we would have as a Russian or Chinese colony. However, Western politicians, too, have allowed their peoples’ prejudices to out-weigh the ideals as often as not.
The right to life and freedom from torture and degradation are still commonly ignored in the supposed defence of national interests; there really hasn’t been as much improvement as there could have been. Think of the current brutal occupations of several Middle East countries by supposedly civilized nations whom we admire.

Fortunately, Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and national human-rights advocates are allowed enough freedom to protest abuses and to keep the cause alive. The Universal Declaration is still the yardstick by which lesser ideals are measured.

The Chairman of the United Nations Committee that composed the Declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt – the wife of the US President but a human-rights advocate in her own right. Her passion for justice and fair treatment for the whole of humankind made her a hero for the ages and a role-model for all who share that passion. I suspect she is a model for our present HRC Chairman, who speaks out against any compromise in the matter of discrimination. With commendable patience and diplomacy, Sara Collins asks why the people of Cayman should settle for lesser ideals than those the civilized world has subscribed to.

Does she speak for all members of her Committee? If not, she will be gently nudged out, as I was. If she were to be, how much protection would the Committee be willing to give then, to categories of persons disapproved of by the politicians and their stooges?

We the general public need to know in advance. We need every single HRC member to publicly endorse the Chairman’s position. No ifs, ands or buts, and no talk of “all our members except three…”

Until they do, it’s only natural to wonder about their support. Look – never mind whose toes you tread on, people. If the politicians turn the heat up, either stand firm or get out of the kitchen. Let’s not risk being sold down the river just to save face for politicians who have committed to a lesser ideal.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh please Gordon. You have tried to take one simple statement out of context to "create" a story where there is none.  Sara’s statement about the composition of the HRC Committee was in response to a query about how many Caymanians are actually on the Committee. 

    As I recall, the whole HRC membership was at the public meeting at the FLC a couple of weeks ago, supporting Melanie and Sara.   Anthony Akimwumi also spoke and asked questions to the PPM panel.

    By the way, I found the names of the Committee members very easily on the internet on the HRC website. Why didn’t you just do the same and get the facts? 


  2. Anonymous says:

    Looks like Barlow’s strategy is to go even further left than the HRC to make it seem moderate.