April 2, 2001
The aftermath of the March 19 elections has brought with it a
torrent of charges and claims that the government and state entities
discriminate against those who are perceived not to be their
supporters and those who are Afro-Guyanese. These are, of course, very
serious charges and must be treated with honesty and openness.
First, it must be said that what we had on March 19, 2001 was a general election. It was definitely not meant to be a signal for a sudden national catharsis on the issue of discrimination and a panoply of other grouses. In a democracy, the intervening period between elections is intended to provide the space to grapple with these very important issues and to test the government of the day and expose its shortcomings in handling these. This is the proving ground of the opposition and civil society groups and it is in this period they are required to amass their evidence. These problems mustn't only surface at elections!
So, instead of protests solely over the conduct of the elections, we have a confused smorgasbord of issues which do not belong in the arena of an electoral contest. This has evolved into impassioned declarations from the protesters outside of the High Court and from supporters of the PNC/R that five more years of this type of "discrimination" and "ethnic exclusion" is unlivable and unthinkable and therefore there must be some radical upheaval of the scheme of things.
If the opportunity is being seized in the light of the PPP/C's win to bring these matters all to a head and foment maximum chaos it only serves to reduce the intrinsic value of the issues at stake such as discrimination and to reduce them to mere sideshows in the high stakes political powerplay.
As surely as night follows day, discrimination on many grounds in the public and private sectors exists. To what extent it is entrenched, systemic and systematic is unknown. To what extent the government and its state entities are unwilling to honestly confront it is unknown. To what extent those who are aggrieved have a valid case to present is unknown. These are all unknown quantities because those who would champion the cause of persons who have been discriminated against have done very little to document these cases and test them in the open. It is certainly a daunting prospect for the average citizen who has been given a raw deal at the Office of the President, at the Ministry of Sport or at Linmine or has unfairly lost a lucrative contract to take on the government on his/her own. Especially a government like the PPP/Civic which has been overly and unduly sensitive to any type of criticism and which has been unwilling to take decisive action where good governance norms have been transgressed.
It should therefore have been and is the natural task of the PNC/R, other political parties and civic groups like the African Cultural Development Association and the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers to document the presumed litany of egregious acts of discrimination and to fight these before the law courts, the court of public opinion and with those institutions concerned with these transgressions.
The loudest declamations against the government on this issue have come from the PNC/R - what has it to show to the public and its supporters in documenting these cases? In the wake of the 1997 elections, its official organ, the New Nation ran blurbs in many of its editions inviting those who had suffered discrimination to relate these instances to the party so that they could be recorded. The dialogue spawned by the Herdmanston Accord was meant to provide a forum for these cases to be ventilated and remedial action taken by the state. Nothing came of this.
In October 1997, a Prevention of Discrimination Act was signed into law under then President Sam Hinds. It prohibited discrimination by a person or body against another on the grounds of race, sex, religion, colour or ethnic origin, indigenous extraction, social origin, political opinion, pregnancy etc. The law set out how persons would be protected against discrimination in employment. It included progressive clauses such as equality of pay among men and women for identical work. Penalties were set out and offences under the act were to be treated in the manner provided by the Summary Jurisdiction Acts.
Was this law ever used to expose the discrimination by the government and its state bodies? Did the PNC/R marshal its resources to put the law to the test and goad the government to refine it and make it even more powerful? No.
The period following 1997 offered the PNC/R and other groups an important window to develop these claims of discrimination and not wait until the 2001 elections and then suddenly uncork the genie bottle. The work of the opposition does not begin when it wins the election. Rather, it ends there. In opposition it must properly represent its constituency and use every available means within the democratic structure otherwise what is the use of clamouring for a better system?
The Prevention of Discrimination Act has now been overtaken by a new law that is more comprehensive in its construction and more potent. A constitutional commission - the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) has been legislated for through the constitutional reform process. The Act was assented to on August 11, 2000, but as dilatory as it has been in activating key laws, the PPP/Civic did not make the necessary appointments to enliven the commission.
This should definitely be one of the first areas for constructive engagement between the new PPP/C government and the opposition to ensure that the ERC is headed by an individual chosen on a consensual basis. The ERC's work will also be underpinned by a tribunal at which appeals of ERC decisions can be entertained and it has a wide-ranging remit including providing for equality of opportunity between persons of different ethnic groups, promoting the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, probing complaints of racial discrimination and making recommendations on the remedial measures to be taken and promoting equal access by persons of all ethnic groups to all public or other services and facilities provided by the government or other bodies.
This is the institutional mechanism that must now be fully utilised by the PNC/R and all those who have legitimate complaints of discrimination. This process is what the government must rapidly breathe life into and instruct all its officers to assist if it has nothing to fear and is truly prepared to correct whatever flaws exist in its system of employing and apportioning contracts and services.
What must not continue to happen is the mouthing of claims of discrimination without any basis being provided and which claims might perhaps be nothing more than the blinkered imagination of a few or contrivances simply to provide a fertile substrate for rejecting a government which is not to one's liking.
Discrimination cannot be dealt with in abstraction. In cinematic terminology it is time to show us the money. Let us deal with the cases of discrimination which exist and begin to put this monster out of business. It will be difficult for those who believe they have credible cases to come forward. They have to be the Rosa Parks of the US civil rights movement. They have to take the first step and use the extant institutional checks and balances to seek justice.