Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Rights of the Child in Trinidad and Tobago

TalkCity Radio Editorial - December 20, 2013

I think it would be true to say that there is universal support for the view that our children require a level of special protection and care. That they are special. That they did not ask to be here. Providing for them is not welfare or affected benevolence. We bring them into the world and it is our individual and collective obligation to ensure they are free to enjoy levels of freedom and rights, some of which we as adults do not enjoy.

Yes, rights. Our children have rights. They are not toys or pets or chattel property.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which derives its essential flavour from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, was signed by this country in 1990 and ratified in 1991. It is a binding international treaty.

Ratifying the treaty means we have declared to the world and have agreed to comply with the special rights accorded this special group of people among us.

I am not going to be judgmental and I am not going to point any fingers at anybody. I’m simply going to explain what being a part of this treaty means and you decide whether, as a society, we are meeting our end of the bargain.

For one, there is the basic right to survival. It is a basic and fundamental right every human being ought to enjoy. We are also obligated to ensure that our children are allowed to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually to the fullest so that they are able to participate meaningfully in the world we leave behind for them.

We are also mandated to protect them from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. Let me add a few notes to this. This requirement to protect our children from harm, abuse and exploitation is further elaborated in a wide variety of separate laws. The Children Act of 2012 is very clear and very specific and is an enlightened piece of legislation which raises the standard of our compliance with the Convention.

At a time when it is perceived that we are in the midst of a tsunami of child abuse of various kinds, we should take some of our web-surfing and Facebooking time and devote it toward reading and understanding what this piece of legislation is really saying to us.

Under the section on Prevention of Cruelty to Children, read what is said about administering of corporal punishment. But we will not be side-tracked by that.

The Convention also calls on signatory countries to ensure the conditions are there for children to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

Human rights advocates would point to four core principles – non-discrimination; devotion to the rights of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and (listen to this) respect for the views of the child.
If we were to put together a score-card on our performance, how would we rate ourselves?

We have marriage and divorce legislation on our books which permit the marriage of children – defined in our Children Act as people under the age of 18. These laws also set different limits on male and female children. In the Marriage and Divorce Act for Islamic marriages the age of consent for boys is 16 and for girls 12. Under the Hindu Marriage Act the age of consent for males is 18 and for girls 14. The Orisha Act sets the age of consent for males at 18 and for girls, 16.

The Sexual Offences Act sets yet another standard in instances of rape and incest and other forms of sexual assault.

It is clear that we need to sit down again as a society and think through some of these things. Current work to strengthen and better enable the Children’s Authority to do its work is a worthwhile start. But in a sense it represents only a part of the wider landscape. Much work needs to be done on ensuring there is more informed public opinion on the core issues, that the laws are applied dutifully and fairly and that average everyday people become more involved in advocating for a better deal for our children.

The Children’s Authority needs our full support and the work of the Child Protection Task Force includes a group of committed folk who, most certainly, will bring a wide and enlightened approach to the immediate issue of the day namely the horrendous attacks on our children. It might be, as Chairman of the Task Force, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, has said that the perception of an increased incidence is due to a greater number of reported incidents, but that there is a single child being abused somewhere in our country as we speak, is no consolation to those who believe that this scourge ought to be prosecuted in a most vigorous manner.

Hopefully, this season that we bill as being for children, will bring cause for reflection on this sad statement on the quality of our development. This cannot be the exclusive duty of the police, judiciary, the Children’s Authority and all the men and women who work for this cause on a daily basis. It is the sacred obligation of each and every one of us, not because of a treaty or law of authority, but because of our conscious and willful decision to cherish our little ones.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Trinidad and Tobago and the CSME

Radio Editorial - Talk City 91.1 FM - Trinidad December 18, 2013

Trinidad and Tobago was among the first signatories to the treaty establishing the CARICOM Single Market and Economy in 2006. 

We entered into this binding, international treaty – a revision of the original 1973 Treaty of Chaguaramas – not as a passive participant that had shrugged its shoulders and said “what the heck, everybody else is doing why can’t we?” But as a leading partner in an effort to eliminate pre-existing conditions that restricted the free movement of resources – corporate expertise, money, productive capacity and people.

We had learnt from 33 years operating as a community and common market that cross-border relations needed to operate under arrangements that removed the obstacles to development both as individual countries and as a region.

We had seen what had happened in Europe where old foes and competitors were expressing confidence in the notion that expanding markets beyond national borders required more than the complex maze of bilateral and multilateral arrangements that had become self-defeating and cumbersome.

We learnt from the lessons of the Africans that had adopted the CARICOM model in developing the trade components of our own arrangements, via an emerging African Union, that you needed to simultaneously grow domestic economies while embedding productive capacity within the framework of much broader market arrangements.

As the oldest integration model in the developing world, we had long learnt that collaboration on issues such as educational standards, joint research and development in agriculture, monitoring and adaptation to environmental challenges, meteorology, aviation policy, telecommunications, legal training and other important areas was better done as a team than as small, vulnerable economies.

Then came this thing we refer to as the CSME – the natural culmination of a process which recognised the benefit of acting together, not always as a collective of sovereign states, but always, when it came to the pressing demands of development, as a single voice operating across a seamless geographical space.

The free movement of skills, as opposed to the blanket free movement of people, was viewed as a principal pre-requisite to achieving the objectives of the CSME. As a beneficiary of the process, I can tell you that the arrangements are eminently orderly. The current categories of skills now include media workers, university graduates, artisans, sports persons, self-employed persons in defined areas and, more recently, domestic and hospitality workers.

Under the current arrangements, persons holding skills certificates in these areas, are entitled as a right, not a privilege, to live and work in the Caricom country of their choice and in which such skills are required.
Throughout the Caribbean, there are now thousands of persons in these categories who benefit from this provision as CARICOM nationals and do not require a work permit.

However, the vast majority of intra-regional immigrants who live and work in host territories do so under work permit arrangements, and in some cases do so having breached immigration regulations. The intention, in the end, is to render the last two categories extinct in recognition of a single space.

Not many people would have known that in order to facilitate the easy movement of visitors to the Caribbean during the 2007 Cricket World Cup, all of our countries, including Trinidad and Tobago actually instituted such an arrangement and it was possible, though not widely practiced, to have entered other CARICOM countries without a passport. The expiry of the enabling sunset legislation meant the end of this arrangement.

And I remember asking the then deputy prime minister of Barbados, Ms Mia Mottley, whether the system had been abused and that hundreds of undocumented immigrants had entered her country and stayed, as previously feared – particularly in Barbados which has traditionally attracted Guyanese, Vincention, Jamaican and St Lucian visitors interested in particularly long stays. Her answer was no.

There was also no evidence that this had occurred anywhere else.

This should have taught the region a few lessons. The first is that there is no desire by hordes of CARICOM nationals to unlawfully storm across the borders of any of our countries. The second is that the vast majority of persons moving and working and living in countries other than their own in the Caribbean are doing so under work permit conditions and not as a result of the CSME and, finally, we are seeing where national economic cycles continue to drift from one geographic pole to another. 

Today it’s our turn at the podium, tomorrow it’s someone else. As the Barbadians, ask the Bahamians, ask the Jamaicans.

I say all of this essentially to rubbish the claim that our engagement of the CARICOM process has not worked in our favour. It has. Trinidad and Tobago is a net economic beneficiary of single market conditions in the Caribbean. We are not losing at the game.

Much of the fears being expressed in my view, are xenophobic in nature and more often arise out of unfounded, uninformed opinions on something that has a pretty simple and straight-forward guiding principle – United we Stand. Divided we Fall.