Another Amnesty conflict Guest editorial
Guyana Chronicle
April 30, 2002

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NOT FOR the first time, and certainly not the last, Amnesty International has run into problems with a government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) over controversial statements. This time it is the Guyana Government of President Bharrat Jagdeo.

Known for being in the forefront of demands for the Caribbean to abolish the death penalty for murder, as well as its claims against police brutality, at times resulting in deaths of persons in their custody, the London-based human rights body has had some fierce clashes over recent years with governments in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and St. Lucia.

Amnesty has often been accused by advocates of the death penalty and those urging tougher and more effective measures to counter the waves of murder, armed robberies and criminal violence, for being insensitive to the national/regional climate and the relevant cultural nuances that make the difference with conditions in Britain and other European nations that remain opposed to the death penalty.

The latest verbal brouhaha with Guyana that erupted last week, resulted from a media release by Amnesty accusing the government of using what it termed "inflammatory language that may undermine the right of freedom of expression and lead to further human rights violations".

That charge was quickly shot down by the government's spokesman, Dr. Roger Luncheon, who had earlier discussed with the media the growing incidence of crime in the society and accused the main opposition People's National Congress Reform of engaging in statements and activities against the Police Force that bordered on being "terroristic" and a threat to law and order.

Luncheon, a medical doctor who holds key positions within the People's Progressive Party/Civic administration, including Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Secretary of the Defence Board and Secretary to the Cabinet, bluntly told Amnesty that its press release on what he discussed with the media was not only too hasty but "ill-informed" and "ill-advised".

Guyana happens, sadly, to be a CARICOM state, saddled with what passes for television "news" and "talk shows" that operate like nowhere else in the Caribbean region with their disrespect for established norms of broadcasting and inflammatory racial/political presentations, as noted by Caribbean and international communications experts.

Amnesty can hardly be unaware of the problems being faced from the electronic media as often alluded to by leading officials of the security forces, diplomats and experienced media and communications personnel in Guyana.

Based on experiences elsewhere, there is, of course, substance in Amnesty's statement that "many states describe as 'terrorist' political motivations that they oppose".

But it was its demand for a review of the Special Target Squad (TSS) of the Anti-Crime Unit of the Police Force, one that coincided with that of the Opposition PNC/R to disband this unit, coupled with what the government viewed as an out-of-context response, that prompted Luncheon's dismissal of what the international human rights body had to say.

Perhaps the most crucial criticism made by the Guyana Government, and one which Amnesty would do well to objectively consider in the interest of its own integrity is, according to Dr. Luncheon, that as a responsible body, it has an obligation to base its public statements on an adequate comprehension of the national issues involved, but that it failed to do so in the current circumstances.

In the world of politics, where it is common for governments, politicians and parties to engage in double-speak and to attack the media and their opponents as they think necessary, a responsible human rights body like Amnesty, which has acquired quite an impressive international profile in defence of human rights, may wish to reflect on the merit of at least some aspects of the official response to its offending press statement.

The situation in Guyana, after all, remains quite threatening for law and order, according to the reports emanating from that CARICOM sister state.

(Reprinted from yesterday's Trinidad Guardian)