Flying injustice

Watching young Trinbagonians exercise nationbuilding passion and skill is magical.

Last week Cydelle Crosby flew to Washington DC and made history. The 21-year-old spoken-word artist brought special flavour to a formal hearing during the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s 154th period of sessions, her testimony a six-minute performance bringing alive issues of age discrimination that ought to be protected by T&T’s Equal Opportunity Act (EOA). Young people in their development as citizens also “deserve a chance…to access information and get an education about our rights”, she urged.

It was a breathtaking moment of national pride. Moreso because it was the first time in 15 years—perhaps the second in history—that Trinbagonians exercised our power as citizens of member-states of the Organization of American States (OAS) to raise human rights themes in hearings before the IACHR. “If I can begin by saying how much I welcome this hearing,” said its past president Jamaican Tracy Robinson, “particularly the last piece of poetry.” “For me it was a pleasure to hear the issues relating to human rights articulated through the story about possibility and promise unrealized because of age discrimination,” she said.

But the table opposite Cydelle, David Soomarie, a man living with HIV, and me sat empty. No one from the Trinidad & Tobago Government had shown up. It was heartbreaking.

16665934097_6afe6d4d62_z 16685626888_782f3a5d76_zLater that day, I watched in embarrassment as foreign ministers from Guyana and the Bahamas, leading state delegations to hearings similarly called by their citizens, sat in the same spot Ambassador Neil Parsan and other officials ought to have occupied at 9am, taking human rights, the IACHR and Trinbagonian citizens seriously. Daniel Cima’s photograph on the IACHR site captures the empty chairs: https://flic.kr/p/rqscyd

“I deeply regret the absence of the state, particularly in light of what you describe as a moment of promise, but a promise that cannot be meaningfully acknowledged without the full participation of the state,” Commissioner Robinson lamented, echoed by her colleagues as they each spoke.

Community Action Resource, representing people with HIV, Women’s Institute for Alternative Development, which teaches girls to be leaders, Cydelle’s team of young people, the.art.IS, using art to change people’s lives, and CAISO, which pursues restorative justice and fair policy for LGBTI persons, went to Washington together to jointly engage the IACHR and Government about strengthening the nation’s human rights infrastructure—the note of promise the IACHR clearly heard. We quoted Wade Mark and Ramesh Maharaj on the critical role of “machinery” like the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) in fulfilling human rights. We talked about an overdue promise of human rights education; the EOC becoming an accredited national human rights institution; and expanding the EOA to include three statuses every international human rights body (and on Friday the IACHR) has urged since the law passed—age, HIV, and sexual orientation. David mentioned close to 100 violations documented by a short-lived HIV “human rights desk” that no one has done anything about. I cited two LGBTI people I saluted here last Independence whom the EOC encouraged to file cases knowing they would turn them down, who then fled the country to safety. You can watch our entire testimony here: https://youtu.be/fybngG2xwTs

I told the IACHR how I ended up in Washington talking about the EOA. How I was one of six LGBTI activists who’d written a Joint Select Committee (JSC) of Parliament in 2007 offering input into the legislation and were ignored. How I’d written the Attorney General in 2011 again asking to come to the table, and got no answer. How I’d written Chief Parliamentary Counsel Ian McIntrye, and he too didn’t think he was accountable to reply. So I’d made sure the AG’s human rights unit, the Labour Ministry’s HIV centre, our new Parliamentary committee on human rights, and Speaker Wade (who chaired the 1990s JSC that developed the Equal Opportunity Act) all knew of Friday’s hearing and its goals.

I called our Washington embassy Monday to share my distress at the hearing no-show. A junior officer refused to share the name of her colleague responsible for the IACHR when I repeatedly asked. Because you will call them, was her rationale. I needed to wait and be called back. How much further can T&T go to avoid talking with me about the EOA?

I began this column arguing why human rights matter. But for Government, and the media who declined to cover the hearing, or T&T’s last human rights review, they don’t seem to matter at all.

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Airlines don’t care much about human rights either. We flew another young human rights defender to proudly represent T&T at last June’s OAS General Assembly. Copa wouldn’t board him. Notice of his entry visa went to their Asunción post, but hadn’t reached Piarco. We got the snafu corrected promptly, but to put him on the next day’s flight Copa demanded US$650. Otherwise, they’d fly him days later when the meeting was virtually over. This seemed straightforward, no nationbuilding lecture required—pay the fee, make sure he went, appeal to airline management to overrule the natives, and get it back. Except things worked opposite to our expectations. Panamanian managers ignored us for eight months. A local agent took up our case when we needed to ticket another young person, but all Copa offered was a nontransferable coupon requiring more money for a new flight. Impact on Copa—negligible; impact on us—TT$4,000 less for legal services.

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