Race Relations Commission
July 20, 1998
Shortly after the 1992 general elections, the PPP/Civic government established a Race Relations Commission (RRC) which was intended among other things to promote racial harmony and to inquire into claims of discrimination and victimisation.
At the outset the laudable move suffered from a fatal flaw. The PPP/Civic initiated the process without ensuring the participation of the PNC. Moreover, the PPP/Civic named Anglican Bishop Randolph George to head the process. The PNC had serious reservations over Bishop George because of his prominent role in the pro-democracy campaign and stayed away from the RRC, effectively rendering it useless.
In retrospect, considering the ethnic electoral divide, engineering an important institution such as the RRC required the fullest engagement between the two parties and other political and civil society groups to ensure that it inspired public confidence and was broadly representative. The PPP/Civic's approach to this issue fell far short of the mark.
An RRC is desperately needed to foster an environment of understanding and respect among the races, particularly in the aftermath of the electoral disturbances and the ensuing extremism and harsh invective.
The RRC would also have been indispensable as a repository of complaints about racial discrimination in employment and other spheres of life.
More importantly, it would have been able to investigate complaints and separate the wheat from the chaff.
Increasingly, the issue of discrimination and victimisation is being wantonly bandied about by groups and persons with varying motives. The veracity of these allegations have not been tested and in genuine cases, the plight of the ordinary person has been occluded by the political background chatter.
That there isn't a vibrant, functioning RRC has to be laid at the feet of the government. If a political compromise with the PNC was what was required to set it in train then it should have come much earlier. Compromises have been made on a whole host of lesser things. The RRC has however languished and the tensions that it could have defused over a number of years have festered and now pose questions which society is yet to address.
Constitutional reform is expected to entrench statutory mechanisms for dealing with race relations and problems of discrimination. But today, July 1999 seems like decades away and there exists a pressing need now for an interim arrangment to catalogue and probe claims of racial discrimination and victimisation.
The St Lucia Statement does recognise that prior to full-fledged constitutional reforms, interim measures will be taken to tackle many of the issues protesters had been complaining about in their most recent demonstrations.
A fresh start is needed with the RRC right now. Perhaps this is one issue which should be high on the agenda of the first meeting between President Janet Jagan and PNC leader Desmond Hoyte. Some mechanism should be immediately worked out between these two leaders to invite complaints of discrimination and to have these probed by a mutually acceptable race ombudsman with the relevant support staff.
As we have said before, the two parties through their leaders and supporters must engage in concerted confidence building measures to lower tensions and buttress faith in the pillars and institutions of a fully participatory democracy. A mutually acceptable RRC would be an auspicious beginning.