This week, the Attorney General accepted a European Union mission and UWI Law Faculty invitation, as part of a funded human-rights-strengthening project, to sit on a Human Rights Day panel with senior members of the local legal academy, bench and bar. Children’s Authority board member Hazel Thompson Ahye and I were added to provoke issues about LGBTI and children’s rights. Parliamentary human rights committee member Glenda Jennings-Smith attended—to learn, she shared.
Justice Frank Seepersad, fresh from his landmark decision finding a place in the law to hold Lendl Simmons culpable for distributing his ex’s nudes, drew the main headlines the day after. Guardian’s photographer wanted a shot of him and the AG, without the rest of us. New posterchild for using the law to find justice, he turned questions about judicial activism into answers about judicial responsibility.
I felt a bit out of place in the high-powered room with my Powerpoint video and irreverent memes, a world apart from lawyers posing questions as if the purpose of law was to withhold rights, not enable them. Is it right for judges to extend protections of international law locally, when our legislatures haven’t domesticated them, one asked. The panel, titled “Diagnosing human rights”, made me wonder whether the sad diagnosis was, for many of us, our sense of rights is that they ought to be hoarded, not widely shared.
Justice Seepersad’s simple reflections—that judges can play a pivotal role in advancing protection of human rights and our citizens have every right to be afforded the same level of respect and protection guaranteed by international standards—became the surprising headline
Several of us talked pointedly about leadership, something Law Association president Reginald Armour marked clearly. So did the judge—noting human rights challenges judges face could be remedied if there was the political will to do what is right.
But the AG also said some powerful things well worth noting, much more notable than the wanton pink silk pocket handkerchief matching his pink tie. First of all, he said that LGBTI rights are being actively debated within the PNM; and he glanced at a brief to cite a few of over 20 laws he noted might need to be amended to address that.
One of his main boufs, as one participant posted to Facebook during the session, taking the discussion well beyond any empty chairs, was that he expected the room to be filled, that there ought to be a lively culture of student activism (it’s exam season on campus). Although he acknowledged activism was not as robust as he liked even in his protest days at Cave Hill. But his larger critique was that he doesn’t see a culture of sustained civil society advocacy, that we advocate by vapse and reactively, and that he doesn’t see people signing up for public service and nation-building—despite the deterrent of Integrity Commission filings—or in consistent engagement with policymaking.
Two participants disagreed with him strongly. One, chatting with me after, asked how people who don’t move in the AG’s social circles were going to have access to him as advocates, and suggested citizen advocacy is taking place in ways a blue lights crowd will never see. I know our legislators don’t have a robust system for email access by the public, or office phones that are answered by listening people. The first question I’m usually asked if I get through to a minister’s office is the gatekeeping “Where are you calling from?” “My house? In my own country.”
Gabrielle Hosein, asking the session’s last question, noted that gender policy advocates have been speaking up till they’re hoarse to successive governments. The AG missed the opportunity to take credit for his Prime Minister going back on the decision to eliminate gender and children as a Cabinet portfolio—as listening.
I tried to make some points myself, about human rights in general. About the importance of independent oversight of human rights decisions, which the UNC removed in the 1990s to hang people, leaving us only the InterAmerican human rights commission. Where they didn’t show up last March for our first hearing in 15 years—ironically, on the importance of having machinery to fulfil rights. At which I quoted the eloquent words of Sen. Wade Mark. We spent a morning session together in El Salvador last month at a global meeting of parliamentarians talking about how parliaments can fulfil human rights obligations to LGBTI people.
I reminded the panel of an important decision on human rights oversight and machinery this government will make the day after Human Rights Day, before this column appears, and whether it will take us a step backward from where the last one left us, by deciding to chair the new parliamentary committee overseeing its own human rights record—something Diana Mahabir Wyatt reminded us is what dictators do.