Friday, October 24, 2014

Looking for a leader in the Caribbean

By Robin Guittard:

It takes a strong leader to sit up and take notice when the tides of public opinion are turning. Often the idea of real change can be concerning to politicians. However, in Trinidad and Tobago people are crying out for their rights to be recognised, as a whole section of society suffers continued discrimination and abuse. Will the leaders listen to their calls?

Robin Guittard
A few months ago, the country’s Commission in charge of the reform of the constitution pointed out “a high level of violence and abuse directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or intersex (LGBTI) people” in Trinidad and Tobago

But over the last couple of weeks something has changed, there is excitement in the air. Perhaps the country is having its most mature debate since independence half a century ago. The nation is discussing what place to give to those who doesn’t identify themselves as heterosexuals, those often called LGBTI.

The ground-swell of support has been palpable, and has come as a reaction to a mis-judged statement from Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

Last month, during an interview in New York, she ducked and dived when she was questioned about the “decriminalization of homosexuality” in the country. She said that it isn’t something her government is seeking to do at the moment because “it’s too divided, there’s no consensus on that issue.” She then rapidly ended the discussion saying the question should be put before a national referendum.

Since then, a fierce debate has taken place. Many new voices have appeared to challenge the Prime Minister’s dismissal of her government’s obligations to protect the rights of LGBTI people.

The public debate has been bolstered by recent developments.

Recently UNAIDS, the United Nations agency in charge of the fight against HIV/AIDS, presented the results of a survey undertaken in Trinidad and Tobago.

An encouraging 78% of people interviewed said that “homosexuals should not be treated differently”, and 56% said that they themselves were tolerant towards LGBTI people.

Then, last week the country’s Equal Opportunity Commission announced that it will recommend including sexual orientation, age and HIV status in national legislation designed to protect citizens against discrimination.

Surely if the Prime Minister needs a green light to act on this issue, she has just received a strong message: the country is ready to move forward.

In fact, Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself has already shown she is open to change. In 2012 she noted that “the stigmatisation of homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is a matter which must be addressed on the grounds of human rights and dignity to which every individual is entitled under international law.” Amnesty International could not agree more.

However, while the prime minister can take strength from the outpouring of support and call for change, her suggestion of a referendum is not the surest way forward. If the prime minister is serious about effecting progressive change she does not need to put the question to a referendum and risk a result that reinforces discrimination. She should instead promote legislation that would ensure that Trinidad and Tobago’s laws comply with its international obligations and implement appropriate awareness raising measures to combat society’s prejudices and discriminatory practices.

Above all, protection from discrimination is an internationally-binding obligation that has been voluntarily accepted by the Trinidadian state. Over the years, UN experts have clarified that treaty provisions prohibiting discrimination implicitly proscribe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s a responsibility which needs to be acted upon by the government, not something that’s optional.

Trinidad and Tobago has repeatedly proven to be a tolerant society. Protection from discrimination is a key component amongst its diverse communities, the foundation on which the society has been built.

It’s exactly because of this strong track-record in tolerance that the prime minister’s inaction and excuses need to be challenged. When so many people and institutions are voicing concerns that LGBTI Trinidadians are continuously facing discrimination, the Prime Minister can no longer ignore the issue.

To improve the human rights record in Trinidad and Tobago the country needs leadership. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar can be that leader and could truly make a mark on the country’s history and change the human rights environment for the better.

A national version was published on Monday in the Trinidad Express

October 24, 2014

Caribbean News Now