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?
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
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
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
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