Denis Solomon 1,174 words
1998 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Trinidad and Tobago has celebrated that milestone in the evolution of humanity by withdrawing from two Conventions to which the Declaration gave birth.
Index on Censorship is a journal founded at the same time as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to monitor compliance with the 1976 Helsinki Final Act. The current issue of the journal is devoted to an evaluation of the progress of human rights in the fifty years since the Declaration was signed. The main conclusion arrived at in the editorial and the various articles was that the Declaration introduced, and Helsinki emphasised, a presumption in favour of human rights over state sovereignty.
There have been a number of backlashes against this individual bias of human rights, for example the Ayatollahs revolution in Iran and the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. But in addition to outright reverses there are more insidious forces militating constantly against the full flowering of rights as an attribute of the individual person.
One of these forces is what Michael Ignatieff calls rights narcissism. Nation states with indigenous human rights traditions, France, Britain and the USA for example, are often guilty of it. They find it disagreeable to have their own human rights record brought under the scrutiny of international bodies. Rights narcissism makes the British resistant to appeals against judgements made in British courts being heard by the European Court of Human Rights. (It) also makes pro-death penalty Americans indignant when the capital punishment statutes of US states are denounced by international rights bodies.
Rights narcissism is displayed, or rather mimicked, by the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago when he says that we dont need the American Convention and the International Covenant because human rights are protected by the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and an extremely wide range of legal and judicial procedures.
Unlike the countries cited by Ignatieff, Trinidad and Tobago does not have an indigenous tradition of human rights. It does not have an indigenous tradition of anything. So Ramesh does not have that excuse for narcissism.
He also makes much of the fact that the USA and Britain are not parties to the agreements we have denounced. What he does not mention, though, is that Britain is a party to the European Human Rights Convention, and for all its narcissism, remains a party. Further, the rulings of the European Court of Justice are directly binding on it. Those of the European Court of Human rights are not, but on issues of European Community Law the UK Government has to ensure that UK law complies with British obligations under the Convention. UK law has been amended on several occasions to comply with judgements unfavourable to Britain. So Britain is not only subject to the jurisdiction of supra-national courts. It is even more subject to them than Trinidad and Tobago was to the two instruments it has denounced in the name of rights self-sufficiency.
Ramesh has also said repeatedly that the appeals to the Inter-American Commission and the UN Committee are frivolous and simply re-hash arguments already rejected by our tribunals. In some cases they do. But this is the result not of our membership in the Convention and the Covenant but of the human rights provisions of our own Constitution, which forbid executions while Constitutional motions are in progress. These provisions Ramesh tried to abolish but could not.
On the other hand, many such appeals are not frivolous at all, and do not repeat the grounds advanced before the local courts for the simple reason that they relate to human rights violations against which neither our Constitution nor our laws provide guarantees. In cases of this sort citizens of this country condemned to death have not only appealed to the Human Rights bodies but have won the cases.
For example, there is no Constitutional right to legal aid in Trinidad and Tobago. In 1978 the application of Robinson LaVende to the Minister of National Security for legal aid to enable him to appeal to the Privy Council was refused. The UN Human Rights Committee ruled that this denial was a violation of Article 14, paragraph 3(d) of the Covenant, which requires a state to guarantee legal assistance at all stages of the judicial process.
It should be noted that Robinson LaVende had had the death warrant read to him after 18 years on death row and was saved from hanging the night before the scheduled execution when a constitutional motion was entered on his behalf. His sentence was subsequently commuted under the Pratt and Morgan guidelines. This means that the State was preparing to hang him while his petition was before the Committee of which we were still a member. In that respect, as the fate of Glen Ashby shows, the PNM was worse than the UNC. LaVende would also have been hanged without having been able to appeal to the Privy Council, because our laws do not guarantee him the means to do so.
If Rameshs boast about the sufficiency of domestic remedies is refuted by the LaVende case, it is shot down in flames by the case of Daniel Pinto, who in 1992 had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment only when the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that he had not had a fair trial. The Committee also called upon Trinidad and Tobago to provide him with a remedy entailing his release. This the state did not do.
Our constitution does not give a condemned person the right to be heard by the Mercy Committee. That Committee decides on petitions purely on the basis of reports to the Minister of National Security. So after the commutation of his sentence Pinto complained to the UN Committee that his petition to the Mercy Committee for early release had been denied as a punishment for his earlier complaints to the UN body. The reports to the Minister had been falsified for this purpose. The UN Committee ruled that by doing this, and telling him so, the authorities had violated the guarantee of respect for human dignity provided by Article 10, Paragraph 1 of the Covenant. It also called for Pintos release in accordance with its earlier decision regarding the unfair trial.
So Pinto owes his life solely to the correction by the UN Human Rights Committee of defects in our judicial system that Ramesh says does not exist. His life, but not his liberty. The Committees call for his release has been ignored. Pinto is still serving a life sentence on Carrera.
The advances and reversals of the struggle for human rights, says Ignatieff, show that history is not a narrative of moral progress. Human rights work is not a long march toward a better future, but a battle against engulfing darkness. What this must mean is that at any given place or time we can only avoid being overwhelmed by injustice if we maintain a constant scepticism towards the spurious and self-congratulatory blandishments of such as Ramesh Maharaj
Copyright © Denis Solomon Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon