Does Human Rights Day matter?

Last year I did something that made me very proud to be a citizen of T&T. I got to speak to the United Nations (UN)—for two minutes—about our country’s human rights record. There’s a new, six year-old process, which every UN member has now undergone at least once. Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a wraparound peer review of states’ records on rights, managed by the Human Rights Council.

It’s critical and congratulatory. Government doesn’t provide travel or accreditation for civil society advocates to participate in T&T’s reviews by international human rights bodies, but international NGOs helped me get to Geneva for UPR and speak.

My focus was sexual rights. The idea that sexuality is something precious and diverse, adults should be able to make decisions about our own bodies, and young people should be equipped with knowledge, skills and self-confidence for a responsible and pleasurable life as a sexual adult, protected from abuse. That sexuality isn’t just something to protect from violation, but a profound part of our humanity we all ought to be able to fulfill with dignity. And that Government has a role to ensure both.

I was a little ashamed that only two domestic NGOs (Family Planning Association and Caiso) participated in T&T’s UPR review (it’s a simple matter of e-mailing a document following guidelines on the UN Web site). This says much more education and ownership of human rights need to happen locally. Plantation, colony and tribe are so woven through our lives it’s been hard for a culture of human rights to replace the urge to strive for that little edge of power or status over others, for ourselves, or our group.

We see human rights as something esoteric and distant from our lives, the stuff of technocrats, idealists and activists, not as fundamental values that have practical application in our everyday lives.

But the core idea of human rights is, simply, that every human being has “a right” to equality and dignity, to a free body and a free mind, by mere virtue of being human, and every state has an obligation to ensure this, through constitutions, laws, access to justice, policies, and protective and promotional systems. A huge part of “equality” means people aren’t subject to unfair discrimination, and minorities, whether Muslims, Rastas or gay people, are protected from abuses by larger groups.

National mechanisms guarantee everyone’s rights—our Constitution, judicial review, a politically independent public prosecutor, the Police Complaints Authority, Children’s Authority, Equal Opportunity Commission/Tribunal and, hopefully soon, a National Gender Equality Commission. Additionally, states enter formal written covenants with each other about human rights. States are sovereign, so no one forces them to do this. Thirteen years ago, eg, the UNC government withdrew us from the American Convention on Human Rights we had joined under the NAR in 1991, because what we’d agreed to then constrained how we manoeuvre on death penalty cases. (Hopefully this new UNC administration will give teeth to its many pronouncements about human rights leadership and reverse that.) Regional associations like the Organisation of American States, Organisation of African Unity and Mercosur also have their own human rights instruments. Caricom doesn’t have any.

A complex set of frameworks and forums of regional human rights law has evolved to manage how these covenants and related obligations are to be carried out, and provide opportunities for petitions on behalf of people whose rights may be violated. With the notable exception of the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, when we’ve signed on to these covenants, in most instances Trinidad & Tobago hasn’t implemented the optional provision that allows us as citizens to go directly to those bodies, or that commits the state to be bound by their decisions. (In one case we did changed our mind, re-acceded conditionally, then changed our mind again.) So here, and in most of the Caribbean, we have some of the weakest human rights protections because we live in small states where abuses have huge impacts, but we’re deprived of the protection of supranational mechanisms designed expressly to backstop the weakness or negligence of young nations with still developing institutions. We also don’t have what’s called a national human rights institution, a formal, independent national authority specifically to monitor and protect human rights.

On December 10 the world celebrates Human Rights Day and the work of human rights advocacy. That work is very simply people using our voices and the formal structures that exist at domestic and international level to monitor and pressure states to honour their obligations to people’s humanity, especially when local systems supposed to do so break down.

This doesn’t only have to be about extreme violations like genocide, child prostitution, political detention, or the recent Dominican Republic decision stripping people of nationality. One can also bring violations to light and get remedies when someone is fired for who they are and told sorry; or when the police or judge let a killer off. Human rights advocacy works not just to prosecute, but prevent, violations that repeatedly happen, like the “after 12 is lunch” pattern of incest that destroys young women’s and some young men’s sexuality. Human rights advocates challenge engrained practices and shift to new ways of thinking about freedom and dignity, as happened here with slavery (one of the most epic human rights struggles), people’s control over their labour, children born to unmarried mothers, religious minority practices by Shouter Baptists, Hindus and Muslims, or regulation of Carnival and drumming.

Our everyday culture of human rights here is still weak. There was a dull silence and inertia by people I thought would leap to lead when the 2011 state of emergency was imposed. But citizen mobilisation over Section 34 and the Debe-Mon Desir highway offer two bright windows for change. I hope my periodic musings here about our bodies and our nation will also help.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith

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