Hearing the wrong things about rights

The column returned to the Guardian 18 May 2016. Here’s what ran:

I was taken aback to read the impenetrable ramblings attributed to me in Monday’s paper, following a telephone interview about Trinidad & Tobago’s Universal Periodic Review I did while driving to the airport last week. It underscored how unintelligible discourse about international human rights can often seem, and the pressing need for more bad-manners plaintalk about them like Hazel Brown’s—the focus of Monday’s story.

So I’m delighted to be back in these pages, trying to make sense, with you, of how our many bodies share this one nation, with boundless faith in our common destiny. Let me be playful in meeting a tight deadline, by trying to translate my Monday mishmash.

“We are subject to universal period review by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. I was in the middle of that process and it raises questions of our records against torture, children and women and gender-based violence. It got crazy.”

Translation: Sorry I didn’t notice your Facebook message, colleague. I’ve been crazy. In the middle of the Universal Periodic Review. The same process at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva mentioned in the article on US ambassador Estrada, that Trinidad & Tobago was just subject to. Where the US, among 50-something other states, made peer assessments of our human rights record. Key questions raised during the review were Trinidad & Tobago’s failure to ratify the Convention Against Torture, children’s and women’s rights, particularly gender-based violence.

“He said T&T was congratulated at the Disability Convention for their efforts made and credit for improvement in other sectors. We have to put all that in place. We are doing well and one of our remaining challenges is that we don’t allow our citizens to go international when it comes to human rights,” he said.

Translation: The state was congratulated for ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities last year, and given credit by several states for improvements in other areas where we were seen to be doing well. But we still have to put all of those commitments to human rights into place. And one of our remaining challenges is that we don’t allow our citizens to take cases to international adjudication mechanisms when it comes to human rights violations.

“Robinson said T&T needed to be accountable to a common state of standards. ‘That is human rights. We don’t allow our citizens to go international and we have to make sure our protections at home are strong and issues are raised,’” he said.

Translation: International human rights involves states holding each other accountable to a common set of standards for how people should be treated because they are human. That’s what human rights are. If we don’t allow our citizens to go to international bodies to ensure we are meeting those standards, we have to make sure our protections at home are strong and people have access to redress mechanisms to raise issues.

“He said a lot of our laws were old and there should be a lot of changes in legislation. ‘We passed the Children’s Act in 2012 and we also criminalised children who have sex with each other and want to send them to jail for life. Rights are rights for everybody and not one set of people. Children need to be done in a different way because they can suffer. Gay rights is to be treated as everybody else.”

Translation: When we talk about “gay rights,” we’re talking about gay people asking to be treated like everybody else. [Is the problem there that T&T’s laws are old and need to be changed?] Yes; but the problem is also new laws. When we passed the Children Act in 2012—child protection legislation—we also criminalised children of the same sex touching each other, and want to send them to jail for life. At the same time we de-criminalised the consummation of child marriages. [pause to get my parking ticket and drive into a lucky space] Government’s approach at the review was that some groups are clearly deserving of rights—children, women, and now people with disabilities—because their suffering is legitimate. But the idea of “rights” is that they are for everybody, not just one set of people.

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I’m not above creating my own garble without anyone’s help. It’s not too late to correct arithmetic and nationality errors in my February 7, Sunday Guardian column: When “On De Road,” Massive Chandelier & Ronnie McIntosh’s Carnival 1995 tune, set off nationality roll-calls in fetes was two—not four—decades ago. Oscar Wilde was Irish. And André Gide, 15 years Wilde’s junior, was less than two years older than Marcel Proust.

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