Give meaning to the civil society charter Editorial
Stabroek News
July 2, 2002

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At the Ocean View Hotel today, the promising encounter of civil society is scheduled to get underway. We welcome our brothers and sisters from the various CARICOM countries and wish them fruitful deliberations. This caucus will precede an even more promising meeting tomorrow with CARICOM Heads of Government prior to their summit in Georgetown beginning later in the day.

As the host country for the encounter, it is a pity that Guyana’s participation in the meeting has been hurriedly arranged. Those representing the country (at the time of writing their identities were still unknown) could hardly have had full discussions with all sections of civil society on the issues that Guyanese citizens wanted to hold sway. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and civil society groups should have done a much better job of it.

The task at hand today is for the various delegations to discuss meaningfully what the Charter of Civil Society for CARICOM was intended to achieve and whether it has fulfilled these expectations. The charter upholds common and shared values across the region. Yet it is within this sameness that the various delegations have to discern the peculiarities of each CARICOM country and seek to mould the charter to fit. It is also within the sameness that the region’s civil societies have to find a way to escape from the generalities and vagueness of language that are common in documents of this type.

Both of these defects were highlighted at a forum on Saturday organised by the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Guyana and the Caribbean Policy Development Centre, Barbados. Activist Andaiye pointed out that Article 12, which deals with women’s rights, was trite in its expression and doesn’t at all capture the fullness and complexities of gender relations and their Caribbean flavour.

Andaiye and Yvonne Fredericks of the Amerindian People’s Association also adverted to the fleeting mention of the rights of indigenous peoples which as expressed in Article XI merely says "The states recognise the contribution of the indigenous peoples to the development process and undertake to continue to protect their historical rights and respect the culture and way of life of these peoples". With a sizeable population of indigenous people, this is of course one of the numerous differences in the characteristics of the individual CARICOM states that Guyana has a special interest in.

To guide the discussions today, each civil society delegation has to have a perspective on how that country has been served by the charter and what changes need to be made. Each delegation also has to have a concept of which areas their citizens want the charter to be more expressive on. Importantly, there must also be an entrenched pathway for civil society to influence decision-making at the level of heads. Hopefully, tomorrow’s engagement with the leader will result in a protocol to guide this.

Pre-conditions for the charter to thrive are the encouragement of participation by citizens and a structured system in each member country for gathering the views which are to be transmitted to the heads.

Uppermost in the minds of Guyanese is how to improve upon the systems of political engagement and governance and to get these tuned up to serve the interests of the country. Over the last decade or so, Guyanese have watched with dismay how political confrontation has retarded progress. A fair and open democratic system through the holding of free elections - as engendered by Article VI - has not resulted in the kind of political calm expected. The opposition PNC/R has used a variety of means to openly confront the government and is now calling for its removal. How should the charter respond to such challenges? In an ethnically sensitive society like Guyana’s - and increasingly Trinidad’s - what should the charter say?

Those issues aside, how has the charter helped to improve the plight for instance of children? Article X111 declaims physical and sexual violence against children. How has the charter influenced any changes in this situation? Article XXV mandates the establishment of a national committee to monitor and ensure the implementation of the charter. As far as we know such a body does not function in Guyana. What about the rest of CARICOM? Does the feedback mechanism with the CARICOM Secretariat work? Article XVII requires that the state establish effective systems of ongoing consultations between the government and the people to further the participation of the people in the democratic process.

How has this worked in the various countries? Article XX1V sets out the responsibilities of the people. How have these obligations been discharged by citizens?

As a high sounding declaration of values and intent the charter is a gem. Its usefulness is however dependent on how serious civil society and the regional governments take it and how they interact with each other.

Hopefully, today’s session will see a full and frank assessment of how the charter has served civil society and its strengths and shortcomings. Hopefully, tomorrow will see civil society and the heads cementing a real, integrative role for the average citizen in the region’s business.