Forum sees need for changes to CARICOM civil society charter By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
July 1, 2002

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The `Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)' has been deemed vague and inadequate and should be made more specific to the reality of life in the Caribbean region.

A revision of the charter is one recommendation Guyana would be expected to put forward to the two-day regional Encounter of Civil Society at the Ocean View Convention Centre tomorrow and Wednesday and which precedes the Conference of CARICOM Heads of Government.

This suggestion was made by Red Thread executive Andaiye who looked at the charter in relation to gender and the concept of society and the Caribbean Single Market and Economy at the opening session of the Civil Society Consultation on Social Development held at the Cara Inn, Kitty on Saturday. The forum was organised by the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Guyana and the Caribbean Policy Development Centre, Barbados.

Two other recommendations coming out of the opening presentations were that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should also be included in a revised charter; and that civil society in the region should meet once every three years with CARICOM Heads of Government.

The consultation was the last of the national meetings to be held by a member country in preparation for the regional consultation. The first consultation held in Guyana in late February was described as a disaster and Saturday's forum was aimed at formulating a national position on issues to be integrated into a regional report to be presented to the Heads of Governments on the second day of the encounter.

The suggestions were supported by the next speaker, President of the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers, Roxanne George and a number of participants.

In an earlier presentation CARICOM Assistant Secretary General Dr Edward Greene said that the charter should not be vilified but improved on.

Andaiye said that it was largely vague and amorphous. She said that the problem was that the charter could have been written for any country in the world. She used the example of Article 12 which calls for the promotion of policies and measures aimed at strengthening gender equality, women having equal rights with men in the political, civil, economic, social and cultural spheres which "we always call for."

While there may be sameness in gender relations in the Caribbean as other peoples of the world, she said gender relations are also different and far more complex than the few lines contained in the charter. The specificity of gender relations in the charter must not only reflect the differences of the Caribbean people but must also inspire, she said.

The same, she said goes for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which are contained in three lines.

Amerindian People's Association Vice-President Yvonne Fredericks suggested a revision of the article on the rights of indigenous people to be more specific.

Andaiye noted, too, that in spite of the racial composition of the peoples of the region there was no mention of race and Article Ten which speaks of cultural diversity does not recognise that there are other race issues in this region that are fundamental and that must be dealt with.

The Civil Society Charter, Secretary General Dr Edwin Carrington said in the introduction of the charter, was one of the strongest recommendations of the West Indian Commission (WIC) as contained in its report `Time for Action'. The recommendation was accepted by the Heads of Governments in 1992 at a Special Session and the draft charter was commended to the Heads of Government for signature in January 1997.

The Encounter of Civil Society in Georgetown will be the first since the charter bringing into existence was signed five years ago.

Since this week's en-counter would be the first to be held, Dr Greene suggested that there should be built-in mechanisms in the charter making provision that the regional civil society meet once every three years. Meeting once every year when the Heads of Governments gather, he feels, would be an exercise in futility.

In her presentation, George, who is also the Deputy Director of Prosecutions said that although the charter was published in 1997 very few people knew about it and its contents.

However, she said that during the writing of the report of the Constitutional Reform Commission in 1999 it was decided that reference would be made to the provisions of the charter by linking them to submissions made by the public and the recommendations made by the Commission as regards existing provisions on the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.

George said that many of the amendments that would embody some of the principles of the CARICOM Charter were passed unanimously by the National Assembly in January 2001 but President Bharrat Jagdeo did not sign them into law because of opposition to the provision on non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The proposed amendment would widen the grounds for which there can be no discrimination by the state to include race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, language, sexual orientation, birth, social class, pregnancy, religion, conscience, belief or culture.

She argued that the inclusion of the provision on non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation does not allow for gay marriages since the country's constitution itself disallows this and there was no proposal to change this. The belief that gay marriages could occur was the plank for opposition to the amendment being signed into law.

George is suggesting that discrimination against sexual orientation should also be included in a revised charter.