Civil society should press for setting up of Ethnic Relations Commission - Trotman By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
August 28, 2002

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Encouraging civil society to organise itself to deal with problems of race and ethnicity should be a step towards forcing the implementation of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC), PNC REFORM member of parliament and attorney-at-law, Raphael Trotman said.

Speaking about the non-implementation of the ERC at the second in a series of discussions organised by the Guyana Human Rights Association and the Guyanese Citizen's Initiative at the National Library auditorium on Thursday afternoon, Trotman said that the non-implementation of the commission to date was symptomatic of a wider and more chronic problem. This problem, he said, was "a deepening sense of malaise which has enveloped Guyana."

At the recent PPP/C public forum at Freedom House last Wednesday on the much-talked about issue of inclusive governance, Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy urged the establishment and effective functioning of the ERC by this year-end. The ERC was delayed for a long period because letters had not been sent out by Parliament Office to the various organisations catered for under the act for them to submit their nominees to sit on the commission. This process has now begun.

In the discussions arising from the floor on Thursday it was noted that many people were concerned that in the current political situation they feel they themselves, or, people they know, were being discriminated against at all levels of society because of race or ethnicity. They emphasised the urgent need for the establishment of the ERC.

Trotman noted that the piece of legislation to bring the ERC into being was debated in the National Assembly several years ago, and unanimously passed. Based on a motion presented by then WPA member of parliament, Dr Rupert Roop-naraine, it was mandated that then clerk of the National Assembly, Frank Narain write to all of the known organisations that comprise civil society to inform them of the legislation and to ask them to begin identifying their representatives.

He said that the clerk of the National Assembly "quite mysteriously took over one year to send out those letters." It was mysterious as Narain was known to be a very disciplined, hard working and business-oriented person. As such, he said, he found it "strange" that he would have taken such a long time to take action and when asked he confessed in "in a two-page letter" to be suffering "from malaise" and tiredness.

Trotman feels that in forcing the establishment of the ERC, religious leaders will have a critical role to play. He said that the majority of Guyanese believe in some faith and moral principles to which they adhere to keep them on the right track. For too long "religious and other organisations have allowed the conscience of those in decision-making positions to remain undisturbed," he said, adding that "persons must be shamed for their actions and we must be brave enough to bell the cat by speaking out against wrongs as we see them."

In the second instance, he said if the ERC could not be established as required by the law, civil society needs to establish its own parallel commission. Civil society, he said, should identify urgently its representatives, to say to the public they were ready for the task ahead.

He feels that once they signal they were ready and they see no action coming from the "state, parliament or national assembly or what have you," the representatives so named should establish their own parallel institution and hold fora or symposia from time to time to deal with the issues outlined in the act.

This commission may not have legality or constitutionality in the legal sense. He saw nothing wrong with civil society having to wait on government or nothing wrong with them going ahead to discuss and pronounce on the very matters, whether the government or the opposition or any other parliamentary party for that matter was interested.

He said that a very important matter in the discussion was the financial arrangements to take care of the work of the ERC, which would be "very humongous and very detailed." He said that former Constitutional Reform Com-missioners, Dr Roopnaraine and Haslyn Parris have been looking at the aspect of logistical support, such as full-time ERC staff.

If civil society was unable to come up with a plan or a structure as to how it sees itself being organised, the politicians at the same time could not be blamed for not recognising the matters as being urgent. By any means necessary, within the law, and with all due haste, civil society should bring itself into a state of readiness, so that at no time the politicians should say they were not ready," he added.

Trotman feels it would help again, if civil society were to present to the National Assembly a suggestion or two as to how they see themselves being chosen. In that way, the National Assembly would find itself constrained to deny civil society the right to organise itself in this manner. He perceives that given the current state of affairs, there was going to be some difficulty in formulating a consensual mechanism for the nomination of the 15 members of the ERC.

In his presentation, Director of the Government Information Agency (GINA), Dr Prem Misir felt that the commission should be styled `Race and Ethnic Relations Commission' as people could more identify with the meaning of the word `race' than the word `ethnic'.

Stating that the word `racism' was used loosely, he said there was no pure race and events like migration, exploration and invasion throughout history have made sure that there was no pure race.

There are so many more similarities among people than there are differences, that in race and ethnic relations if more attention could be placed on the similarities, then life would be more meaningful, he said.

Also taking a lead role in the discussions were Rights of the Children (ROC), an organisation whose activities Dr Misir lauded as being worthy of emulation. ROC was formed in 1999 by a group of high school students to promote racial harmony. Their programmes such as holding on to friendships, race free zones, and rallies - called ROCATHONS - against racism and the hands-on-harmony campaign (painting) among other activities are aimed at eliminating racism. They also attended the World Conference on Racism and during the last general elections promoted a code of behaviour for the electorate. In a brief presentation, ROC member Michelle Kalama-deen said that the impact of racial and ethnic tensions has contributed to racially biased conversations, discrimination, alienation and acts of violence.

She said it was now causing people locally to start to doubt their capacity to live together in a dignified and harmonious way. For the younger generation, she said, racial tension was imposing limits to a more varied world than their own racial and religious background, as well as to friendships across the racial divide, and preferences and choices.

In her presentation, Michelle Sumners of ROC looked at the issue of diversity in Guyana and felt it was "potentially a gift to ourselves." She said it could only be a gift if it were made one and also embraced as an asset through which Guyanese could become one people instead of six races. On the other hand, she said, if it were squandered it would remain a liability.

In looking at diversity as an asset, she noted that ROC's activities were meant to promote racial harmony. The activities included ethnic vibrations, a fair, concert and exhibition held to celebrate the different cultures in Guyana. Other activities included community challenges, and an ROC dance in which sequences from the various races have been merged into one dance.

Sumners said that ROC has promoted diversity and will continue to do so. She said "embracing diversity is not an option. It is essential if we are to move forward as a society in which people feel secure and fulfilled. The alternative is to close off the multi-racial richness which our diversity offers and to live each in our own narrow world feeling insecure and all alone."