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Civil society’s voice must be heard

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Dear Reader, may I crave your indulgence to defer my follow-up article from last week’s piece on the UPM and the 1979 elections, to make a few comments on some pressing issues, relating to events over the past week. Incidentally reflecting on those same general elections of 25 years ago, it is more than co-incidence that the man who led the UPM into that electoral battle is today at the helm of the nation’s affairs. {{more}}

For Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves accustomed to and reveling in the limelight as he undoubtedly is and does the past week must be a momentous one for him. Highlights of that week would have been the presentation of the 2005 Estimates, the successful holding of his Party conference and his marathon three-and-a-half hours Budget presentation. The Budget debate continues even as I write, and in the absence of careful perusal of the Estimates, Budget Address and various presentations by Parliamentarians, it would be wise for us to be measured in our comments, well me at least.

For the moment, though, I would like to dwell on a few issues from the Budget and the P.M’s address to his Party. To take the latter first, I must compliment the Prime Minister for sticking to clear principles on some foreign policy positions while being prepared for practical dialogue on the same. I refer in the first instance to the refusal of the Government to bow to US pressure by signing what are called Article 98 agreements or non-surrender agreements with the USA.

What are these agreements? What are their relevance? The crux of the matter is the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) established on July 1st, 2002. This Court has been set up to deal with “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.” Such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is the court that tried the murderers in the states that used to make up Yugoslavia and which should be trying the likes of the former dictator Pinochet in Chile and Saddam Hussein. There are 139 signatories to the ICC Treaty and almost 100 countries have since ratified it. Unfortunately some large countries, Russia and the USA among them, have not yet.

In the case of the USA, its government has gone further by objecting to the court having jurisdiction over its citizens and demanded that countries with which they have relations, Caribbean nations among them, should sign Article 98 to exempt US citizens from possible prosecution should they be charged with war crimes. Some Caribbean countries have caved in under threats, signing Article 98 to let off US citizens, while should one of their own citizens be so charged, he (almost certainly not a she) can be bought before the court. Dr. Gonsalves is therefore defending the rule of law, international obligations and the fundamental principle that we are all equal, rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

On Haiti, too, only those who lack the information as to the ongoing day-to-day massacres and violations of human rights in Haiti or feel obliged to support the foreign policy dictates of powerful neighbours, can fault the “no ball with La Tortue” line of the P.M. And on the continued search for political unity, including a possible southern Caribbean link (from Trinidad to St. Vincent), Gonsalves is also up the right street.

In the face of the significant pressures though (already assistance to the Coast Guard has been withheld), we cannot leave our Government alone on the line. There ought to be unanimity in Parliament on the issue. Those of us in civil society must also loudly come out in support of those principled positions and let the world know that the people of tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines will not be bullied or bribed into throwing principle aside and accepting the status of second-class citizens.

Speaking of civil society, brings me to a real concern over some pronouncements in the Budget; Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace in his dismissal of the Prime Minister’s Budget address made some very unfortunate remarks regarding civil society and those civil society organizations that constitute the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC). He accused the Prime Minister of subjecting the public service to what he described as “institutional stress” by having endless meetings with civil society representatives. He went further in his response to the proposed Social Contract between the Government (not just this Government, but THE GOVERNMENT of SVG) and civil society and accused civil society representatives of meeting last week Tuesday to “rubber stamp” a Social Contract.

Now Eustace is a man I respect a lot, but his statements are not only misinformed, they actually insult the integrity of all the persons involved in drawing up the Social Contract. The fact of the matter is that the issue is not one decided by any one meeting or any one side. There have been intensive discussions and disagreements in arriving at what is a DRAFT of the document for circulation and discussion by all civil society organizations and the general public. I was involved, sacrificing many hours to get the final product, and if Eustace and others know me well, “rubber stamp” is not something that resonates with my character, upbringing, outlook or philosophy. I can say the same of those of my colleagues who worked on the document.

What is sad is that the two statements reflect an outmoded, fundamentally backward view of civil society and how it works and should work, its role and place in a modern world. Nearly all international organizations an institutions today not just accept civil society participation and co-operation but actively promote and practice it. In fact it was a representative of Eustace’s own party, the NDP, John Horne, who as Chairman of the ACP signed the COTONOU AGREEMENT between the ACP and EU on June 23, 2000. This agreement has at its core the participation of civil society, and the various articles of the agreement make it clean (Arts. 1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 17, 19, 33 to name some).

The view repeatedly being expressed by the Opposition on NESDEC and its components goes against the grain of any modern developmental principle. It will do the Opposition party no good to harbour ill feelings and misguided perceptions about civil society.

I leave it to the civil society leaders to speak for themselves.

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