UNITED NATIONS

Press Release



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COMMITTEE ON ELIMINATION OF RACIAL
DISCRIMINATION CONSIDERS REPORT OF
GUYANA


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Committee on the Elimination
of Racial Discrimination
3 March 2006
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has considered the initial to fourteenth periodic reports of Guyana on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Presenting the report were Bibi Shaddick, Minister of Human Services and Social Security, and Carolyn Rodrigues, Minister of Amerindian Affairs. Ms. Shaddick said Guyana was a small developing country that still faced social, political and economic challenges associated with its colonial past, but that it was determined to overcome those obstacles. Several Constitutional human rights commissions, including the Ethnic Relations Commission, had recently been established, but to date not a single case of racial discrimination had ever been brought in the country. In Guyana all racial groupings cohabited harmoniously and peacefully, as evidenced by an increasingly mixed population owing to interracial marriages. Similarly, although Guyanese citizens belonged to many different faiths, there was absolute religious tolerance in the country.

Ms. Rodrigues said the Government wished to remind the Committee that Amerindians shared the same fundamental rights and freedoms as all Guyanese citizens, as well as all the same guarantees under the law. The Government specifically chose to retain the name "Amerindian" rather than indigenous, she noted. The Act provided for Amerindian people to call themselves indigenous, if they so wished. There had been no consensus, during extensive consultations with the Amerindian communities, which lasted for more than three years, on a name change.

In preliminary remarks, Mario Jorge Yutzis, the Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for Guyana, said that the political situation and the role that race played in it had been clarified. Historically, ethnic polarization had been undergoing a process of change in Guyana and promising signs of change and a direction shift could be seen. Mechanisms now in place were a good basis from which to formulate a national plan against racism and all forms of discrimination based on the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action. The area of inter-religious dialogue was one that should be looked at in the future. He was pleased to note the high-level representation of the delegation, which included two ministers, and he said that he looked forward to considering the next periodic report with a view to maintaining the Committee's dialogue and to moving forward.

The Committee will present its final recommendations on the initial to fourteenth periodic reports of Guyana, which were presented in one document, at the end of its session, which concludes on 10 March.

When the Committee reconvenes at 3 p.m. this afternoon, it is scheduled to take up the fifteenth and sixteenth periodic reports of Botswana (CERD/C/495/Add.1).

Report of Guyana

Guyana is a multi-ethnic society of six distinct races, and a large group made up of various mixtures of those races, with three major religious denominations, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The initial to fourteenth periodic reports of Guyana, submitted in one document (CERD/C/472/Add.1), say that a series of constitutional reforms were undertaken during the period from 2000 to 2003, which primarily sought to enhance human rights protections in the country. Non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, marital status, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, colour, creed, sexual orientation or religious belief, is now a constitutionally protected right. Additionally, five Rights Commissions have been created to which citizens can lodge complaints, including the Ethnic Relations Commission. The Racial Hostility Act sets out clearly the punishments for public officials who use their office discriminatorily and, in the labour sphere, the Prevention of Discrimination Act protects against racial, gender or other forms of discrimination.

The Amerindian Act guarantees the cultural and economic rights of the Amerindian people, and provides for the administration of Amerindian communities. The land rights of the Amerindians are also addressed by the Act. The Amerindian Act is currently being revised to represent more modern-day thinking, philosophy and the Constitution of Guyana. Issues such as protection, racial bias, land ownership and local government will be addressed in the new Act. For that purpose a consultation process involving 90 percent of the Amerindian communities was conducted over the last two years. In February 2004, the Government approved the establishment of a National Toshaos (leaders) Council to address issues at a national level with regard to Amerindian development and advancement.

Presentation of Report

BIBI SHADDICK, Minister of Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, presenting the report, said that it was the policy of the Government of Guyana to promote and protect the human and fundamental rights of all citizens, including the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity. Guyana was a small developing country, that still faced social, political and economic challenges associated with its colonial past, but that as a nation it was determined to overcome those obstacles. The most recent census of 2002 showed decreases in the Indo-Guyanese population, from 48.3 to 43 per cent, and in Afro-Guyanese, from 32.7 to 30.2 per cent; increases in the Amerindian population, from 6.3 to 9.2 per cent, and those of mixed race, from 12.2 to 16.7 per cent; with other groups showing little or no change. Regarding religious affiliations, contrary to reports, Bahais and Rastafarians accounted for only 0.1 and 0.5 per cent of the population, respectively. The general political structure had also changed with the emergence of new political parties as well as the coalition of smaller existing ones.

Guyana was now a full State party to the regional Caribbean Court of Justice and Guyanese attorneys had already filed matters to be heard by that Court, which was now the highest court of appeal in the country. The provisions of international human rights conventions were enshrined in the Constitution, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Citizens could petition the High Court directly to seek redress of the breach of any of the rights guaranteed by those treaties, but no such case had yet been brought.

On 16 February the Government had achieved an historic milestone, Ms. Shaddick said, when it passed the Amerindian Act of 2005. That bill followed three years of consultations and constructive engagements between the National Assembly and the Amerindian communities and other stakeholders. The Act addressed issues including land, sustainable use and benefit-sharing of natural resources, and preservation of cultural heritage.

In collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations a National Plan of Action for Combating Trafficking in Persons had been formulated and a Counter Trafficking in Persons Unit set up. The Government also funded a shelter for victims of trafficking. To date, 8 persons had been charged with trafficking in persons under the Act and those cases were currently under consideration, Ms. Shaddick observed.

The Constitutional amendments in 2001 provided for several Constitutional Commissions, including the Human Rights Commission, the Women and Gender Equality Commission, the Rights of the Child Commission, the Indigenous Peoples Commission and the Ethnic Relations Commission. The Ethnic Relations Commission addressed 18 complaints in 2004, and several in 2005, but the 2005 report had not yet been published. It should be noted, Ms. Shaddick said, that the Constitution did not provide for the membership of the Ethnic Relations Commission to be from any specific racial grouping.

In 2003 the Executive appointed a three-man Disciplined Forces Commission to look at, among others, the ethnic composition of the disciplined forces of Guyana and to make recommendations to address any imbalances. The report of the Commission was before the Assembly now.

Historically, political representation in Guyana had been perceived as based on ethnic and racial affiliation, but that was only a perception. In recent elections a party held to have East Indian support had received 53 per cent of the popular vote, but the recent census showed that East Indians comprised only 43 per cent of the population. So far, not a single case of racial discrimination had ever been brought in the country, she noted. In Guyana all racial groupings cohabited harmoniously and peacefully, evidenced by an increasingly mixed population owing to interracial marriages. Similarly, although Guyanese citizens belonged to many different faiths, there was absolute religious tolerance in the country. Guyanese culture was a mix, but each grouping retained a large part of its individual traditions and cultures, Ms. Shaddick said, and there were provisions for that. For example, since 1993, September had been designated Amerindian Heritage Month and national holidays included important Hindu, Muslim and Christian festivals.

In conclusion, the tardiness of the State party in the submission of its report should in no way be interpreted as synonymous with little or no domestic implementation or worse yet, non-compliance with the provisions of the Convention, Ms. Shaddick said. She assured the Committee of the Guyanese Government's commitment to racial integration and to a world in which human beings were judged for their contributions to society and not on the colour of their skin.

CAROLYN RODRIGUES, Minister of Amerindian Affairs of Guyana, continuing with the presentation of the report, said that the Government wished to remind the Committee that Amerindians shared the same fundamental rights and freedoms as all Guyanese citizens, as well as all the same guarantees under the law. The Amerindian Act created a special or additional regime of guarantees on top of those already guaranteed to them by law.

The Government specifically chose to retain the name "Amerindian" rather than indigenous, she noted. The Act provided for Amerindian people to call themselves indigenous, if they so wished. There had been no consensus, during extensive consultations with the Amerindian communities, which lasted for more than three years, on a name change. What Amerindian groups had told the Government was that Amerindian non-governmental organizations had told them that if they did not change the name to indigenous those groups would then not be eligible to benefit from international aid, which was untrue. The Government rejected any attempt to take away from the Amerindians the right to be considered indigenous or to keep that status if they came from mixed parentage. The issue of who was considered indigenous in Guyana was a very sensitive one in the country, and it was unfair to dictate which groups may or may not be allowed to consider themselves as such. Any such determination could only be the result of an extensive national debate and a consensus that promoted harmony, and which did not seek to elevate one group above others.

The National Toshaos Council was free to set up its own secretariat without Government involvement. The mandate of the Council had recently been expanded to include advisory services to various Government bodies, she said.

Ms. Rodriguez noted that the only Amerindian governing bodies recognized under Guyanese law were the local village councils. In the new Act the Parliament had specifically delegated some of the Government's authority to those bodies. The rules formulated in those councils had to be published, or gazetted, before they could come into force and once gazetted they bound all Guyanese citizens whether Amerindian or not. As that was the case, rules formulated by village councils had to conform with the Constitution. Village councils also now performed the role of local magistrates and could impose fines for violations of their rules.

Regarding the issue of term limits established for the Toshaos, Ms. Rodriguez noted that there were generally no term limits in Guyanese political life other than the restriction that the President of Guyana could not be elected for more than two consecutive terms. Historically, there had always been members of the Amerindian community in Parliament and in administrative positions in government. During consultations with the Amerindian communities, in the context of the drafting of the Amerindian Act, complaints had been received that there had been abuses of power by Toshaos who had remained in office indefinitely, and that those members had abused their office. The current rule, developed as a result of those consultations, was that a Toshaos could be elected for an unlimited number of times, but could not hold office for more than two terms consecutively.

There were Amerindian communities with title lands and those without. Those who had title had more rights, but untitled communities had also been provided with a procedure under the Amerindian Act to acquire titles to their land. There were presently 25 untitled, and 80 titled, communities.

Outside of the titled lands, there were traditional land rights that were protected under the Amerindian Act. However, all land not privately held was considered to be the property of the State. Therefore, though Amerindians had traditional land rights over all State held lands, there were competing rights that were also recognized to those lands. The law did not give priority to State leaseholders over those of the Amerindian groups, but merely provided for the need for the Amerindians, in their use of the lands, to respect the rights of the leaseholders as well.

Regarding reports that the incidence of poverty was higher for those of Amerindian heritage than for other groups in the country, she said that the Amerindian population was scattered over the most remote and inaccessible regions of the territory. Most of those communities could only be reached by air. While those communities always faced a high cost of living, the increasing cost of fuel meant that the cost of living in those areas had skyrocketed. It made it almost impossible, too, for the Government to construct economically viable initiatives to help those communities. Notwithstanding those challenges, however, the Government had been working intensely to improve the situation, often in partnership with the many non-governmental organizations that existed. Most of those initiatives were directly aimed at poverty reduction. Among those initiatives were the new administrative bodies previously mentioned. In the education sphere, for example, the number of Amerindian high schools had increased from 2, in 1991, to 9 in 2006, enrolment had increased, and more than 7 dormitories with free food and lodging had been constructed.

Oral Questions Raised by the Rapporteur and Experts

Mario Jorge YUTZIS, Committee Expert serving as Country Rapporteur for Guyana, said that several United Nations missions had visited Guyana because of concerns of ethnic polarization and, though it might be just perceptions, he hoped the delegation would provide more information to clarify the questions that remained. The situation, the colonial legacy of the country was so perverse, so difficult, it perhaps explained the country's actions. He noted that the Amerindian population had increased, but he wanted to know what those statistics actually reflected. There were still three main groups in the country, whose status and even whose names were a colonial legacy, such as the Amerindians, the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese. Stereotyping and crystallization of ethnic divisions along political party lines was long standing. It was that ethnic divisiveness that had led to the civil war, and to the divisions between rich and poor.

The Amerindians had not been involved in the report or in the presentation just presented, Mr. Yutzis said. Their names had not been heard, such as the Arawaks and the Patamona. He would not mention them all, but they had not appeared in the report or in the presentation. He did not think that lapse was conscious, but it had psychological underpinnings. Silence weighed heavy in such circumstances. To what extent did the State party actually recognize the distinct, separate groups.

Mr. Yutzis acknowledged some answers on what was being done to help the Amerindian segment of the population in the presentation, but still wished to know what percentage of gross domestic product went to the Amerindian population. Specifically, what budget resources had been allocated for health care services for those outside of Georgetown and for those in the most far-flung communities? Additional statistics were requested on the number of Amerindians that had received education grants and who participated in higher education. Finally, greater details were needed regarding cases brought under the Racial Hostility Act, incidences of racial problems, and the scope of legal restrictions in that regard.

Committee Experts asked about economic initiatives to help minority groups and specifically indigenous people, and whether there were disaggregated statistics to show economic status by ethnic or racial groupings.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, one Committee Expert observed that under the new legislation the village councils were delegated by Parliament not just to make rules, but also to order community service for breaches of those rules. What checks were in place to ensure even handed application, given that the village councils had both the power to make and enforce the rules? Other questions were posed regarding issues such as what was being done to redress the imbalance in the ethnic makeup of the armed forces; affirmative action to address the issue of poverty among the indigenous community; education in Amerindian languages; intercultural education and tolerance education; and whether all Amerindians received standard education in the English language.

Further details or statistics were requested by Committee Experts concerning minority groups' access to commercial loans; the amount of the budget that was targeted to the indigenous population; and the distribution of housing lots among minority communities, specifically indigenous communities. Statistically, it was interesting to note, one Expert commented, that Portuguese was listed as a separate ethnic grouping from European.

A Committee Expert said he had some difficulty with the delegation's assertion that the Government would allow anyone who wished to consider themselves as indigenous and he read out a definition of indigenous persons from the ILO. That definition, he felt, was important.

Response by Delegation to Oral Questions

Ms. Shaddick said that before politics by race could be addressed, the historical background in the country had to be understood. Guyana had been a colony, became self-governing in the 1950s, gained independence in the 1960s and became autonomous and self-governing in the 1970s. The Political Affairs Committee was first created to address the imbalances that were a result of the colonial legacy in the 1940s, and then became a party in its own right. That party eventually split along racial lines and that was the origin of the major perception that the two major political parties in Guyana were based on ethnicity. The Africans went to the People's National Congress and the Indians stayed with what was now called the People's Progressive Party. However, that split was never a clean one, Ms. Shaddick stressed, and members of either ethnicity had always been members of both parties.

Despite the fact that the People's Progressive Party, seen as the Indian party, was by the far the largest, the People's National Congress formed a coalition, gained power, and stayed there when independence was granted in 1966. Elections held thereafter were always questionable, and the opposition parties held demonstrations against the results. Not until the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the death of President Forbes Burnham, did the strength of the People's National Congress wane. The 1992 elections were widely held to be the first free and fair elections since 1962, and the People's Progressive Party won the majority.

It should be noted that between elections everything was peaceful in the country, Ms. Shaddick said, and it was only during elections that demonstrations and so forth occurred. In 1992, 1997 and in 2001 that had been the case. However, many dialogues had been initiated between the various parties. There was also ample evidence of plans and initiatives for inter-party cooperation, for example, on issues that were of concern to the Afro-Guyanese community. One such cooperative initiative provided resources for members of the largely Afro-Guyanese community who had lost their livelihoods when a bauxite mine closed.

Also, not all ethnic groups had political parties, The Amerindians, Portuguese and Chinese did not have political parties. It was only by looking at history could it be explained why Portuguese were not considered part of the European group in Guyana. The Portuguese originally came to the country as indentured servants. The British were the ruling class. So European was basically a way of saying British, and the Portuguese were not considered a part of that group, Ms. Shaddick said.

In Guyana the Government did not like to divide gross national product allocation by ethnic group. The Government sought to bring together, rather than divide, its population by ethnicity. The country allocated its resources regionally. It might be true that some regions were more predominately occupied by certain groups, but that was the most that could be said.

Regarding disaggregated statistics on housing allocations, the forms for application did not ask for a person to declare their ethnicity. Last names were also not indicative. For example, the Minister of Amerindian Affairs was Amerindian, an Arawak, but her last name was Portuguese, Ms. Shaddick observed. There was no way to know the ethnic background of someone in Guyana without asking. The priorities that were looked at for awarding housing had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. At the beginning of the programme, priority was given to those who had the most children. Today, now that the greatest needs had been addressed, anyone who fulfilled the requirements was eligible and received allocations. There were also programmes and funds in place to provide housing for those who had no resources.

The Racial Hostility Act had never had any criminal cases prosecuted under it. That was partly because it was difficult for people to face the task of going to court and testifying in such a case. But that did not mean the offences under the Act were not addressed, Ms. Shaddick said. For example, a television commentator accused of inciting racial hatred, which was an offence under the Act, was examined by the Ethnics Relation Commission and that commentator was taken off the air. Also, the Act had only been passed in 1997; just because no cases had been prosecuted under it to date did not mean there would be none in future. Also, under the Prevention of Racial Discrimination Act, a number of cases had been brought.

Efforts were being made to address ethnic imbalances in the Guyana police force. The Guyana police force today had approximately 60 per cent Afro-Guyanese and mixed, 20 per cent Amerindian and 19 per cent East Indian. It was interesting to note that the percentage of Amerindians in the police force was much greater than that in the total population, Ms. Shaddick observed. One explanation was that recruitment efforts were focused on the disadvantaged areas of the hinterlands. It also appeared that military careers were not attractive to the East Indian population, and that was reflected in the police force as well. But the numbers were changing. There were more East Indians in the police force now, and fewer Afro-Guyanese and mixed, than previously.

Nursery, primary and secondary education was free for all, including Amerindians and members of all other ethnicities. Education was in English. Those who were poor could apply for assistance to purchase school uniforms. Last year 25,000 such children received uniforms. In the Amerindian community every single child received that assistance, which could be considered affirmative action. The Government realized that that group had been historically disadvantaged. Public assistance was also based on school attendance and participation in educational activities. In the scholarship programme, there were a reserved number of scholarships specifically designated for Amerindian pupils. Again, Ms. Shaddick stressed, the Government recognized that the playing field was not level for Amerindians in the education sphere and places were reserved for them, and for no other segment of the population.

On the subject of land rights for the Amerindians, there were mechanisms for persons occupying land to acquire absolute individual title. But the Amerindian lands were communally held. The Government recognized that there were certain lands reserved for the Amerindians under ILO Convention 169. A new process of demarcation was currently under way, however, Ms. Rodrigues said. Through that process, in 2004, two titles of roughly 3,000 square miles were issued. One to a community of about 300 people and the other 600, and more such grants were in the works. All the Amerindian communities were now on board for demarcation and the process was moving quickly. Ten new claims were currently being considered. The lands in question represented a significant percentage of the country's total landmass.

Responding to definitions of Amerindian, she said that Guyana had both a definition of what constituted an Amerindian person, but also who was a resident of Amerindian communities, which was determined by the communities themselves. That allowed for all persons who were determined to be residents of Amerindian communities to benefit from assistance, and gave power to the communities over the channelling of that assistance.

Regarding a lack of mention of the names of tribes or nations of the Amerindians, Ms. Rodrigues said that there were nine: the Arecuna, Arawak, Akawaio, Carib, Macusi, Patamona, Warrau, Wapisiana and Wai Wai, and noted that the Arawaks were the largest group. There was a time that Amerindians were marginalized in Guyanese society, but that was no longer the case. The statistics on the police force showed that. There were also a number of Amerindians working in all spheres, as nurses, medics, engineers, and army personnel, among others. Amerindians existed in all 10 regions of the country, but there were four regions that were predominately Amerindian, and it should be noted that the budget for those four regions had grown significantly in recent years.

Addressing the question of Amerindian education, Ms. Rodrigues said that out of a total population of 68,000 Amerindians, currently 20,530, or approximately one third, were enrolled in education, the average attendance was 76 per cent, and the drop-out rate was 3 per cent. A distance education programme to train teachers in the communities had been put in place and this year the first batch of teachers from that programme would be ready.

On the issue of State grants of mining rights to lands traditionally used by Amerindians, it was stressed that the rights granted were not for large scale operations, but only for small and medium scale operations.

Preliminary Remarks

MARIO JORGE YUTZIS, Committee Expert acting as Country Rapporteur for Guyana, said that what had been accomplished in the meeting had been historical, and there had been a very useful exchange. The political situation and the role that race played in it, in particular, had been clarified. Historically, he said, ethnic polarization had been undergoing a process of change in Guyana. There was a phrase that both parties had used in the course of the electoral process, "Let us vote for people who are like us", and that phrase, to some extent, had affected all of Guyanese society. Now, promising signs of change and a direction shift could be seen. Accordingly, together with all the administrative and judicial measures that had been undertaken, Guyana appeared to be moving towards almost a need for a new ethical and social pact, which would probably be based on a greater inclusiveness of all groups in society.

The real or perceived mistakes of the past should be regarded as signs showing the way forward. The mechanisms now in place were a good basis from which to formulate a national plan against racism and all forms of discrimination based on the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action. The area of inter-religious dialogue was one that should be looked at in the future. He noted the high-level representation of the delegation, which included two ministers, and he said that in two years he hoped to consider the next periodic report with a view to maintaining the Committee's dialogue and to moving forward in contrasting and comparing the information received today to evaluate progress. He had to admit that he had high expectations.
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