Prevention of Discrimination Act has become a dead letter
Stabroek News
March 24, 2002

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Dear Editor,

In Guyana, the issue of discrimination has generated much bitterness, being one of the main accusations leveled against the government. The debate on this issue, like that on corruption, has wrongly focused on calls for evidence rather than on the measures that must be in place to prevent this social ill from emerging (if we assume, for the sake of argument, that it is non-existent) or to stop it altogether (if it is alive and kicking). Your newspaper, misguidedly, has regularly joined the chorus of those who have demanded to see "the evidence".

But what really is discrimination and how can it be proven? Our amended constitution defines discrimination as affording different treatment to different people on the basis of eighteen characteristics, including race, age, marital status, religion, disability and, controversially, sexual orientation.

The constitution, in effect, forbids our public institutions from acting or failing to act in a manner that, on one hand, imposes on us burdens, obligations or disadvantages or, on the other hand, withholds from us benefits, opportunities or advantages on any of the eighteen grounds. Discrimination is therefore a two-headed dragon: the denial of a benefit as well as an imposition of a hindrance.

In public and private offices, a citizen can face discrimination in two ways. The first is known as "according-to-the-rule" discrimination. In this situation, an official diligently applies the rules or laws to reject, say, a house lot applicant whose race or religion differs from his own, but does not apply the same strictness to a person of his own kind.

Secondly, in "against-the-rule" discrimination, an official refuses to bend the laws or regulations to accommodate a person of a race or religion different from his own, but is prepared to do so to benefit persons of his own group.

Proving and, more importantly, preventing discrimination require at least three elements: one, discrimination legislation; two, an enforcement agency, besides the courts, to monitor compliance and handle complaints; and, three, legal powers to access information, either given to citizens and/or to the enforcement authority. The overriding goal of any prevention system must be deterrence, achieved by raising the risks and costs to the perpetrator of being caught and punished.

This last element (access to information) is the most vital and deserves some expansion here. Without this requirement, any challenge (as regularly issued by Stabroek News and, naturally, the government) to complainants to provide evidence of discrimination is outright unreasonable. A person or group would be unable to provide satisfactory evidence without the power to force the accused entity to make available its records and its officials to testify. Thus, in no way can a person confirm that a bank denied him a loan, or a ministry refused him a house-lot because of his race if he can get no further than the front counter. Without access to records, and a process to review them, a complainant can do no more than rant and rave.

That said, it might surprise many of us that the elements to combat discrimination in Guyana are available, although not all in the desired form. First, in terms of legislation: apart from the detailed constitutional provisions, we have the (roundly-ignored) Prevention of Discrimination Act of 1997. This act focuses on employment and business activities of private entities, outlawing discrimination in matters such as hiring practices and in the provision of goods and services. Fines could be as high as G$20,000.

The one critical failing of the act, nonetheless, is that it fails

to assign a public authority to oversee and administer it, leaving citizens to seek justice in our sluggish courts. The good news is, however, that this limitation can be overcome by the establishment of all the new constitution commissions, especially those that deal with human rights, ethnic relations, public tendering and gender issues.

Apart from their wider functions, these new commissions are empowered to serve as impartial complainants, investigative and arbitration authorities with powers to subpoena documents, records and officials. Here is where charges of discrimination could be settled. None of these commissions, however, has been established. The Guyanese public must agitate for their formation.

In closing, the only true evidence of whether the PPP government is serious about preventing discrimination and the other ills of mal-governance is not its bald-faced calls for "the evidence", but its actions in implementing and respecting all the r elevant legislation dealing with these evils. Stabroek News can better serve the public's cause by endorsing this insight.

Visit for more discussion on this and other issues.

Yours faithfully,

Sherwood Lowe

Editor's note

We have made the offer several times that if people provide us with evidence of alleged discrimination or corruption in a particular case we will investigate the matter. The offer remains open.

Many laws h ave been passed that have never been enforced including the one passed before the elections that made it a crime to make racially inflammatory statements. We believe part of the solution is a public education programme to make people more aware of the various new laws and their rights.

Lawmakers should also think twice about passing laws which they have reason to suspect will never be implemented. A classic example of this the Psychotropic and Narcotic Substances (Control) which envisaged the setting up of a rehabilitation center for persons convicted of drug offences. That vital institution was never set up so that a jail term has been the only available solution.