Nine persons representing various interest groups have been sworn in as members and alternates on the newly established Ethnic Relations Commission.
The long awaited ceremony at the Office of the President yesterday, took place almost three years after President Bharrat Jagdeo signed the law establishing the commission.
Those who were sworn in were: Andrew Garnett and his alternate Carvil Duncan, representing organised labour; members Bishop Anthony Juan Edghill and Radha Krishna Sharma representing the religious community; member Norman McLean and his alternate, John P. Willems representing the private sector; member, Dr Frank Anthony and his alternate Dr Rajendra Singh representing youth; and member Cheryl Sampson representing women.
Other members still to be sworn in are Pandit Ramkissoon Maharaj and Shahabudeen McDoom representing the religious community and alternates Pastor Roy Thakurdyal and Shafeek Khan; and Leila Austin.
The Commission’s purpose is in part to promote harmony and good relations between persons of the various ethnic groups; to promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity; to investigate complaints of racial discrimination and to promote equal access by persons of all ethnic groups to all public or other services and facilities.
President Jagdeo and PNCR Leader Robert Corbin both witnessed the swearing in along with some members of the cabinet and PNCR MPs.
Jagdeo said that the swearing in signalled the country’s willingness to confront the old challenges of achieving harmonious ethnic and race relations.
In brief remarks, Corbin said that the swearing in was the first significant step in the implementation of the constitutional arrangements which were agreed on in the constitutional reform process.
He said that his presence at the swearing in ceremony was an indication of the process of constructive engagement begun between Jagdeo and himself.
He also noted that the constitutional issues which related to the functions of parliament had also been resolved.
He said that it was now for the commission to make an important contribution to building a cohesive society where “we can live together as One People, One Nation, One Destiny.”
But he said the Ethnic Relations Tribunal - to which appeals of decisions from the commission will be made - must now be set up for the commission’s work to be meaningful.
In his remarks, Jagdeo noted that the level of progress in fostering better ethnic and race relations had eluded Guyanese for many years.
He declared that all Guyanese would agree that unless “we urgently, collectively and innovatively resolve the issue of ethnic and race relations in this country, the full potential of this nation will not be realised.”
He remarked that although the need for the commission predated the events of the 1997 general elections, the commission was conceived in the aftermath of those elections.
As a stand alone constitutional body, Jagdeo said, the commission would be the sounding board of society seeking to do all things possible to establish and promote better ethnic relations.
Not only would it have the power to investigate and administer sanctions when necessary but more importantly it would have the key task in promoting better ethnic and race relations.
He expressed the hope that the commissioners would take every necessary step to create opportunities, events and programmes to ensure that everyone was aware of the issues which for too long had been swept under the carpet. He stressed that “strength in diversity” should not remain a slogan or a cliche.
But he added that laws and institutions were no substitute for the goodwill and kindness that dwell in the hearts of peoples who should at all times be guided by loyalty, dedication and love for their country.
In invited comments, Dr Anthony said that the commission’s role would be important in the all-round development of the country and pledged to give of his best.
Sampson expressed concern that she was the only woman on the commission so far and hoped the other commissions would be more gender balanced.
McLean said he did not know if anybody had a prescription for a cure to racial and ethnic insecurities but the commissioners would nevertheless have to buckle down and work to bring the nation together.
Garnett said the commission was necessary as Guyana was a plural society beset with its own ethnic and race relation problems and like his colleagues agreed that the task was a formidable one.
Edghill said he looked forward to the commission producing fruit in the short term and “much, much fruit in the long term.”
No date has been agreed on when the commission would meet but some members told Stabroek News that they would be meeting soon to elect a chairman and a vice-chairman and to discuss plans to establish the commission’s secretariat.
When established, the Women and Gender Equality Commission, the Indigenous Peoples Commission, the Rights of the Child Commission, and the Human Rights Commission will each nominate one of its members to sit on the Ethnic Relations Commission.
These members will not have a right to vote and their term of office will be determined by the commissions which nominated them. The majority of the commission members will serve for four years.