IACHR Hearing on the Bahamas : “great step forward” or “defamation”?

March 27, 2015

The Bahamas are not the most talked about nation when it comes to human rights but this story is a marvelous lesson in effective diplomacy by human rights defenders.

ICHRA-meeting.jpg

A group of NGOs [i.c. the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA), the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and and the Haitian Organization for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS and STDS] managed to get a hearing on Friday 20 March 2015 before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) about the treatment of migrants in the country. In short: The main concern was that the Government has put into effect new immigration restrictions without any amendments to the relevant law. It was claimed that Haitians had been targeted and there had been unlawful detention as well as mistreatment. To its credit the government of the Bahamas participated in the hearing and was represented by Minister of State for Legal Affairs Damian Gomez. He refuted the allegations made by the group. [“Indeed, our support of Haiti and its people in the attainment of economic, political and social stability emanates from an abiding and unflinching belief in the dignity of our shared human condition”] Gomez added that the Government received intelligence that Haitians were being smuggled to his country for as much as US$5,000. Still, Gomez invited the IAHRC to conduct an on-site visit to the Carmichael Road Detention Centre. “We have invited them to do an onsite visit. They have indicated a willingness to accept that invitation and act on it and the ball is within their court with respect to indicating to us when they wish to come. They’ve also given us some questions at the hearing which will be answered in the course of things within the next fortnight or so, though we have no deadline within which to answer them.

 

Mitchell: Activists Defamed Country

However his colleague the Minister of Immigration, Fred Mitchell, reacted very differently a few days later when he called on the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association to explain why it is attempting to “defame” the country’s name through “irresponsible” efforts. “These people who went to Washington – Bahamians – making these exaggerated claims about abuse of migrants to this country must answer the question to the Bahamian public,” he said at a press conference. “What they are doing will aid and comfort people who are trying to sabotage this country through a criminal enterprise. They have to answer that question. Their actions are irresponsible.” He added: “You can disagree with policy. There are domestic remedies for people to take if you have a difficulty with the policy. If there are specific abuses, there are domestic remedies but to actually go and defame the country in another country, I want to describe that as a particular thing, but I’ll just stay my hand for the moment. But they do have to account to the Bahamian public for their conduct, knowing what we know.”

Compare this with the tone of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) in a statement of 24 March, which thanked the government for participating in the hearing and for “sharing the view” that the Immigration Bill should be reviewed. The letter is such a beauty that I copy it below in full.  Diego Alcalá, deputy director of the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights, also used positive language and called the invitation “a great first step”.

But then the issue of reprisals..

During the hearing, petitioners also requested that the IACHR assist The Bahamas in designing and implementing a training protocol on Human Rights for State agents, including the role of human rights defenders and their protection. In his contribution, Mr Alcalá said: “Human rights defenders in The Bahamas are confronting a hostile environment that put their security and work at risk. Members of our delegation have been threatened for expressing their opinions against recent changes in migration policies. Also, high-level government officials have made expressions against them, minimising their work or even depicting it as ‘alarmist and inflammatory’.” Mr Alcalá referred to threats against GBHRA executive members Fred Smith and Joe Darville with charges of criminal libel and sedition, and pointed to the cancellation of the Kreyol Connection radio show following critical statements by the government.

Mr Smith, the GBHRA president, told The Tribune that he has made numerous complaints to the Commissioner of Police over verbal and physical attacks he has experienced due to his environmental and human rights activism. However, he did not feel the concerns are taken seriously given the government’s own proclamation against his organisation: “Joe Darville and I have been called social terrorists. Fred Mitchell (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) has threatened to have us prosecuted for criminal libel, sedition. On social media, we have had horrific accusations made against us, that we’re traitors against The Bahamas and that we should be deported.

During Friday’s hearing, commissioner and country rapporteur Tracy Robinson responded by saying: “In relation to human rights defenders, the commission is always concerned when there are allegations of either threats or stigmatisation of human rights defenders and we ask the state to pay close attention to the allegations made. The commission has very clear rules and principles about the use of criminal laws, including criminal libel laws, in a context where human rights defenders are exercising their rights to protect the interest of others.

The GBHRA’s reaction was coolly that it hoped Friday’s hearing would foster closer working ties with human rights groups and the government!

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Full text of the letter by the GBHRA:

“The Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) would like to publicly thank the government for participating in the recent international hearings in Washington D.C. concerning the country’s new immigration policy. 

The hearings before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR), convened at the request of the GBHRA and its international partners, we hope will serve as an opportunity for government and human rights defenders to work together closely on reforming current immigration policy and law, specifically the proposed amendments to the Immigration Act, currently before the Senate.

Considering the reaffirmation of its commitment to human rights best practices and international law during the hearings, we are confident the government shares our view that the Bill should be reviewed in light of the comments of the IAHCR commissioners.

The GBHRA looks forward to contributing to this effort in any way it can, and more generally speaking, stands prepared to partner with government to enhance respect for individual rights, strengthen the rule of law and prevent official actions which could pose a risk to our international reputation in the long run.

We likewise thank the government for extending an invitation to the commissioners to conduct an on-site visit to The Bahamas, and have expressed our avid support for such a visit to the Commission.

The GBHRA would also like to express our formal gratitude to the commissioners, the IAHCR and the Organization of American States (OAS) as a whole, for the careful attention currently being paid to human rights issues in The Bahamas.

The commissioners performed a great service to our country during the hearings, reminding us of the expectations of international law on the question of immigration enforcement.

Specifically, their comments affirmed: that detention must be a measure of last resort, not a general rule; that children should not be detained under any circumstances; that the impact of policies on women and children must be a matter of special consideration; that due process, the presumption of innocence and access to justice must be guaranteed for all migrants; and that the government has a duty to address violence and abuse during immigration enforcement exercises.

With regard to this last point, the commissioners made it clear that the government has a responsibility to not only prosecute those who would commit violence or abuse, but also do all in its power to prevent such attacks in the first place.

The commission asked for a report in writing on the extent to which the current policy conforms with the above requirements, and the GBHRA is confident the government will promptly comply with this formal request.

Finally, the GBHRA also welcomes the commission’s offer of help in revising and redrafting the current Bill. We are sure the government will be receptive to this offer, particularly with a view to better clarifying where immigration policy ends and law begins – another issue raised by the commissioners during the hearing.”

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