UN body raps Guyana over inequalities faced by indigenous population

GUYANA, SOUTH AMERICA - The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has criticised Guyana for deficient policies in protecting the rights of and addressing inequalities among the indigenous population, including the new Amerindian Act passed earlier this year.

The committee's observations were issued on March 21, 2006, a little over two weeks after Guyana turned in its periodic reports covering the years between 1978 and 2004. Guyana's report has been overdue for 26 years.

While the committee's report was critical on a number of issues, it also noted some positive efforts in areas such as employment, housing, health and education that impacted on the indigenous population.

The CERD is composed of 18 independent experts who are nominated and elected by countries that have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Minister of Amerindian Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues said she had attended the committee meeting in Geneva, along with Human Services Minister Bibi Shadick to defend the country's reports, answer a number of questions and offer clarifications based on complaints that were made to the committee by local NGO, the Amerindian Peoples' Association (APA). She said the meeting went well although given the questions that were asked, it appeared that the committee had been misled.

Minister Rodrigues subsequently responded to some of the issues raised in a statement issued by the Government Information Agency (GINA).

In a statement issued last week, the APA said the committee's deep concern over various provisions in the new Amerindian Act vindicated its own criticisms of the legislation.

"We hope the government will now make the necessary changes in order to give effective protection to our rights," the group stated.

It noted it had recommended that the National Assembly delay enactment of the Bill until after the CERD session because the CERD convention is incorporated in the constitution. "If CERD found the Bill to be substandard, questions would be raised about its constitutionality," the APA said.

The committee said it had difficulty assessing the country's reports, as there were no disaggregated statistical data on the number and economic situation of the indigenous peoples.


Based on the reports it reviewed, one of the committee's chief criticisms was the absence of a national strategy to address inequalities faced by members of the indigenous population in the enjoyments of their rights under the Convention. Indeed, it noted that the state had adopted several measures aimed at improving the situation of indigenous people in fields such as employment, housing and education. But the absence of a development strategy was considered to be of great concern.

The committee recommended that the government should adopt a comprehensive strategy or action plan that will provide for special measures to allow indigenous people the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It said adequate funds ought to be allocated as well.

The enactment of a new Amerindian Act has been one of the major milestones for the indigenous population. However, it has been the subject of a lot of criticism by indigenous peoples' NGOs and other groups since its draft.

The committee also had deep concerns about a number of the provisions in the new Act. It said there was a lack of legal recognition of the rights, ownership and possession of indigenous communities over the lands, which they traditionally occupy. It was also concerned about the government's practice of granting land titles excluding bodies of waters and subsoil resources to indigenous communities on the basis of criteria that may not be in accordance with the traditions of the indigenous people involved. It said this could deprive untitled and ineligible communities from rights they traditionally had.

As a result, the committee urged government to recognise and protect the rights of all indigenous communities to own, develop and control the lands that they traditionally occupy, including water and subsoil resources as well as their traditional access to other areas, which they rely on, for sustenance.

The distinction drawn between titled and untitled communities in the new Act was another area in need of correction, according to the committee. But Minister Rodrigues said this could not be done because "titled communities simply mean that you have title to your community and untitled communities mean that you do not have title to your community."

However, while these are named differently, there are provisions in the Amerindian Act, for untitled communities to become titled. She pointed out that the separation is necessary as Amerindians live all across the country. "If we say it is the same, then it means wherever Amerindians are living, the lands belong to them," she said.

The minister said that during the deliberations at the Select Committee level, there were no criticisms about this aspect of the Bill.

The Act also caters for a village council to administrate village affairs, although they are subject to approval and gazetting by the minister.

However, the committee urged government to recognise and support the establishment of village councils or other appropriate institutions in all indigenous communities, vested with the powers necessary for the self-administration and the control of the use, management and conservation of traditional lands and resources.

However, Rodrigues told GINA that it was felt in some cases the village councils had too much power, in the sections for instance where they are expected to make their own rules and also enforce them.

The description of the indigenous people as "Amerindians" in the new Amerindian Act, a contentious point during the debate on the new legislation, was also another area of concern in the committee's report. It recommended that government, in consultation with all concerned indigenous communities ought to clarify whether "Amerindians" is the preferred term of these areas. Also, it urged that government should consider the criteria laid down in ILO conventions as well as CERD's own advisories in defining indigenous peoples, and that it recognise the specific rights and entitlement accorded to indigenous peoples under international law.

Another item of concern in the report is the extensive exception to the protection of property in Article 142 (2)(b)(i) of the Constitution, which authorises the compulsory taking of property of Amerindians without compensation "for the purpose of its care, protection, management or any right, title or interest held by any person in or over any lands situated in an Amerindian District, Area or Village established under the Amerindian Act for the purpose of effecting the termination or transfer thereof for the benefit of an Amerindian community." The committee recommended that government afford non-discriminatory protection to indigenous property, in particular to the rights of ownership and possession of indigenous communities over the lands, which they traditionally occupy.

It also recommended that the government confine the taking of indigenous property to cases where it is strictly necessary, following consultation with communities concerned, with a view to securing their informed consent and giving adequate compensation where property is compulsorily acquired by the state.

The absence of statistical data on the representation of ethnic minorities, including indigenous women in public offices and government positions was also listed as an item of concern. On this latter point, the committee also urged government to ensure that all ethnic minorities have adequate opportunities to participate in public affairs at all levels, including both parliament and government.

It noted the establishment of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) and acknowledged that it did not require representation of any particular ethnic group. But it said the absence of indigenous representatives on the commission was a concern and it recommended that the ERC be as inclusive as possible and that representatives of indigenous communities be consulted in the decision-making processes that affect their rights directly.

Further, regarding the ERC, the committee noted that only a few complaints about acts of racial discrimination have been brought before it and none before the courts. Government explained that this could be, in part, attributed to the high burden of proof required in judicial proceedings and difficulties securing witnesses. As a result, the committee recommended that the government consider sharing the burden of proof in civil and administrative proceedings once the commission of an act of racial discrimination has been sufficiently substantiated by the complainant. It added that government should allocate funds for witness protection programmes in such cases.

Low secondary school and university attendance by indigenous children and students was another area of deep concern as well as the reports about the lack of qualified teachers, textbooks and classrooms in areas predominantly inhabited by Amerindians. The committee urged that there be equal quality of teaching for indigenous children and adolescents as well as an increase in school and university attendance. It also called for intensified training and incentives for hinterland teachers as well as the construction of schools in these areas. The provision of culturally appropriate textbooks, including in indigenous languages, in schools with indigenous pupils and an increase in the outreach of scholarship programmes were also recommended.

Ethnic balance

The committee also noted the government's special recruitment measures for the armed forces and the police in favour of indigenous people and other applicants from hinterland areas. The committee also deemed the composition of the armed forces and the police in particular, which are predominantly recruited from the Afro-Guyanese population, a concern. It recommended intensified efforts to ensure balanced ethnic representation in the composition of the groups and it suggested the implementation of proposals contained in the Disciplined Forces Commission report as a solution. The commission was charged with, among other things, addressing the imbalance in the forces, and the committee suggested extending special recruitment policies to all under-represented ethnic groups, especially Indo-Guyanese, and by providing incentives for members of under-represented ethnic groups to join the forces.

Although it found much to criticize, the committee's report also included a brief look at positive aspects of the country's efforts.

The committee included its appreciation for the efforts made by the government to extend the public health system to remote hinterland areas through community health centres, health huts, special incentives to doctors deployed to hinterland areas and a system to airlift patients to hospitals in emergency cases.

However, it said too that despite these efforts the average life expectancy among indigenous peoples is low and they are reportedly disproportionately affected by malaria and environmental pollution, in particular mercury and bacterial contamination of rivers as a result of mining activities. The committee recommended the training of health personnel from indigenous communities to increase the number of skilled doctors. In response, the minister said that while the situation is not ideal it has been tremendously improved taking into consideration the remote locations of Amerindian communities. Nevertheless, she said, the government has been making efforts to deploy doctors and medexes to Amerindian communities.

She noted that if there are no doctors or medexes in most villages there are at least community health workers, many indigenous to the communities, and employed by the government.

The committee welcomed information on the high literacy rate of the population as well as efforts by the government to increase the number of secondary schools in the hinterland areas. The minister said it is obvious that Amerindians are now better equipped with educational facilities, resources and opportunities. It was only under this administration that Secondary Schools have been built in all Amerindian-dominated regions - Regions One (Barima/Waini), Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni), Eight (Potaro/Siparuni) and Nine (Upper Takutu/Upper Essequibo). Prior to 1992, there was only one secondary school in Region One at Mabaruma and one at Bartica.

The committee commended the government for the ratification of most of the core UN human rights treaties and that the international convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination can be directly applied in the country's courts. At the same time, it noted the lack of information on the practical application of criminal and other legislation aimed at eliminating racial discrimination, including the Racial Discrimination Act (1997), the Prevention of Discrimination Act (1997) and Article 149 of the Constitution. In this regard, the committee urged that government monitors and ensures the effective implementation of all legal provisions aimed at eliminating racial discrimination and provides an update in its next report.

In its general review the committee also said it was concerned about the existing ethnic tensions in Guyana, saying they constitute an impediment to inter-cultural recognition and the construction of an inclusive and politically pluralist society.

Source: http://www.stabroeknews.com/

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