Monday, 30 November 2009

Returning to the Charter of Civil Society

One of the more remarkable features of the two summits hosted in Trinidad and Tobago this year - (The Fifth Summit of the Americas April 17-19 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – November 27-29) – was the almost complete absence of frank discussions on the question of existing threats to human rights, especially within attending states.

In April, for example, a significant media clampdown in Venezuela and similar threats in adjoining client states of the Bolivarian empire as being tailored by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, were completely ignored. Talk about the re-admission of Cuba to the ranks of the Organisation of American States also proceeded boldly without reference to the continued harassment of journalists and bloggers there.

In this context, it was absolutely not expected that anyone would therefore utter a single word about emerging difficulties in some of the English-speaking Caribbean states where journalists do not face the same severe restrictions or harassment, but where bad signals concerning the diminution of our freedoms are being observed.

Then, in November, CHOGM 2009 came and went without any indication that freedom-loving leaders, in even the most obtuse fashion, raised the issue of disturbing trends on the African sub-continent, in South-East Asia and in Fiji in the South Pacific where the military clampdown on free speech continues.

For the countries of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) blindness to such transgressions is nothing new. We sat around the Caricom table for years even as Guyana sank into darkness and pain. Maurice Bishop’s reckless adventurism in Grenada was often at the expense of free speech and press freedom. Elsewhere, the state grip on broadcast media was used as a way of suppressing dissenting views and broadcasting bans on leading protagonists were par for the course in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere; in earlier years now apparently being craved by insecure politicians in the 21st Century.

Now, in the midst of a re-examination of the Caricom process, the Charter of Civil Society – designed in 1997 as an instrument for guiding the nature of the development process in the Caribbean – has disappeared from the discussion.

Article 8 of the Charter says:

Freedom of Expression and Access to Information

1. Every person shall have the right to the enjoyment of freedom of expression including the right to:
(a) hold opinions and to receive and communicate ideas and information without interference and freely to send or receive communications by correspondence or other means;
(b) seek, distribute or disseminate to other persons and the public information, opinions, and ideas in any form whatever.

As Caribbean leaders run for protective cover under the umbrella of media laws and defective Access to Information legislation, to what extent has there been public recourse to this 12 year old undertaking?

Let’s put the Charter of Civil Society back on the stove. It is not even on anyone’s back-burner. Let’s remind the leaders of the commitments they once claimed would help bring not only the freedom of economic independence, but the liberty of modern nations.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Caricom Pre-Collapse

One of the most amazing things about the imminent collapse of the Caricom project is the continued state of denial of people who should know better. Hardly a skeptical journalistic brow appeared to have been raised at the recent announcement by Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson that claims of imminent Caricom doom were being "grossly exaggerated."

Who better than nervous Caricom travelers at the Immigration booths to testify that a narrowing xenophobic eye remains trained on the Caricom logo that now meaninglessly adorns our passports?

Official trade statistics remain steadfastly focused on systemic intra-regional imbalances but blind to far more extensive anomalies between our individual states and North America and Europe. Not too long ago, one Central Bank Governor, jealously eyeing Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaican jars on grocery shelves, had been moved to declare virtual 'foul' even as the other shelves of everything else were quite in order and par for the course.

"Caricom," declared former Barbadian diplomat Peter Laurie,"has exhausted itself." I actually met Laurie several times on the Caricom circuit during his many years of work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Barbados. I had heard him argue the Caricom case far more forcefully than almost every single current Caricom head.

"Caricom leaders have absolutely no interest in regional integration other than what petty benefits each can gouge out of it," Amb. Laurie writes. "Most of them, except for the cheapskates and freeloaders, are slowly realising that they get out less than they put in. Caricom is no longer a win-win situation,but a zero-sum game."

What could have prompted Amb. Laurie to so decry what he once supported so passionately? He does not really explain, except to argue that Caribbean people had outgrown the Caricom project.

I do not entirely agree with him on the latter point. I believe Caricom people remain mired in the filth of colonial style authoritarianism just as solidly as their leaders. Where, today, is there a strong, independent and credible human rights organisation comprising competent, committed and fearless advocates - with perhaps the exception of Jamaica and Guyana?

How many Caribbean people believe that the media should be shackled by a regime of censorship? That journalists and their media houses should become subject to the authoritarian reins of Big Brother institutions to punish and reward accordingly?

There are few Caribbean people who hold a different view, unless their preferred political party is in opposition and do not support, during that period in opposition, notions of state censorship of the media.

I will wager that in the vast majority of Caricom states, the people who occupy political space would eventually attempt to muzzle the media if they were in power. Who in power, in this space, has not - the efforts of Bruce Golding in Jamaica on the question of defamation notwithstanding?

What does this have to do with the success or failure of the Caricom project?

Well, if the founding ideals of the integration movement, as eloquently captured in the now largely forgotten Charter of Civil Society for Caricom, continue to be ignored, the best integration architecture is guaranteed to crumble and eventually disappear.

I do not agree with Mr Laurie that international trade and liberal arrangements for the movement of goods and services pose the greatest threat to Caricom. I believe the irrelevance of the current movement emerges strongest from a failure to recognise that our greatest strengths reside in the freedoms we appear so willing to trade for bright, shiny but meaningless trinkets.