In a functioning democracy every individual has certain basic inalienable rights (human rights) enshrined in its constitution and jealously guarded by various purposefully constituted arms of governance. When these fundamental rights are undercut or otherwise compromised – either through a reductionist understanding that only recognizes the will of the majority or for political and/or economic expediency – the very fabric of democracy is weakened, resulting in dire socio-economic consequences.
Our image of the state of human rights in Saint Lucia is too often tinged with the partisan hues of tribalism and defaced by ignorance. We tend to overlook how badly our fellow Saint Lucians are treated, unless they are friends or family, or there is political mileage to be made. The few voices of genuine dissent are too often excoriated. In many cases the negation of objectivity occurs at a subconscious level; born out of observation bias induced by willful information isolation. Thus we see only what we want to see, rendering ourselves unable to fix the problem because we are incapable of acknowledging it.
The US State Department reports on human rights are objective accounts produced annually in accordance with its Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and Trade Act of 1974. These reports are compiled for all United Nation member states, as well as for non-member states to which the US provides aid. They cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments. These reports guide America’s domestic policies, inform their diplomatic engagements, and determine foreign aid allocations and security assistance. They are also utilized by international human rights organisations in assessing which territories should be petitioned for change, and what may be necessary to bring about such change.
“The most serious human rights problems included long delays in investigating reports of unlawful police killings, abuse of suspects and prisoners by the police, and human trafficking.” So reads the executive summary of the 2016 US State Department human rights report on Saint Lucia. The assessment continued: “Although the government took limited steps to prosecute officials and employees who committed abuses, the procedure for investigating police officers was lengthy, cumbersome, and often inconclusive.” Similar indictments were made in all of the preceding reports.
The report offered several examples that seemed to substantiate its findings. Mentioned was the ruling by Magistrate Robert Innocent that the 2013 death of Chakadan Daniel while in police custody was an “unlawful killing”. To date this matter has not been resolved.
While it was acknowledged that civilian authorities maintain control over the police force, the seeming impunity with which police officers operate did not go unnoticed. The existence of mechanisms to detect, investigate, and punish abuses of authority was recognized but those mechanisms were viewed as ineffective. The length of investigations, the rarity of prosecutions resulting from those investigations, the imposition of a six-month deadline on the families of victims to commence civil proceedings, the citizenry’s lack of awareness of their rights, inadequate staffing of prosecutors and judges, the lack of witness and victim protection, the politic unwavering support of the police by politicians, all contribute to the inability to effectively and efficiently address allegations of impropriety the report found.
It was acknowledged that legal statutes exist which prohibit sexual harassment and assault (including sexual exploitation of children) and mandate gender-based equality of legal status and rights. It was also pointed out that the state and various NGOs provide services to the victims of abuse, including a home for severely abused and neglected children, counselling, and foster care provided by the department of human services; a hotline operated by the St. Lucia Crisis Centre; and the Catholic Church-operated Holy Family Home for abused and abandoned children. However, it was also indicated that the aforementioned issues remain acute problems due, in part, to inadequacy of resources, complicity of the family of victims and victims themselves by way of pernicious quids pro quo such as wanjman (spelled ‘roungement’ in the report), and legislative failings such as the prosecution of crimes against women being contingent on the victims’ willingness to press charges.
The report’s assessment of legislative protection and treatment of the disabled was equally damning. While it was recognized that educational accommodation was made for children with disabilities, there were few such opportunities for such persons in adulthood. To say nothing of the fact that the law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, or the provision of other state services. Additionally, despite government regulations requiring disabled access to all public buildings, only a few government buildings have access ramps.
The US State Department’s assessment explicitly drew attention to the non-existence of protections against discrimination of persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “Consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal under indecency statutes, and some same-sex sexual activity between men is also illegal under anal intercourse laws. Indecency statutes carry a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, and anal intercourse carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison,” read the report.
“While the indecency statutes and anal intercourse laws were rarely enforced, there was widespread social discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in the deeply conservative society. The few openly LGBTI persons faced daily verbal harassment. Civil society groups received reports that LGBTI persons were denied access to rental homes or were forced to leave rental homes and were denied jobs or left jobs due to a hostile work environment,” the report continued.
Quite apart from the losses in foreign financial aid and technical support which are being experienced and will continue to be experienced on account of our abysmal human rights standing, the precedents of legislative and attitudinal indifference to, and borderline disdain for, the downtrodden, handicapped and otherwise vulnerable should be of particular concern. The institutionalized deprivation of individuals to their basic human rights has unexpected collateral effects. As indicated by Indian psychiatric medical professional R.C. Jiloha, “Human-beings are acutely responsive to how and what other people perceive, evaluate, and feel about them.” Positive and negative reactions from others often affect the quality of interpersonal relationship. Behavioural scientists have documented that positive responses from others foster a psychological and physical well-being, whereas long-term exposure to negative reactions is associated with psychological difficulties and poor physical health. He went on to assert that people who experience rejection, such as the denial of their human rights, generally display three dominant traits: a heightened desire for social connection, anger and aggression, and avoidance of interpersonal interaction. Many of our social ills are (in part) the indirect results of fundamental rights violations; crime, sexual perversion, chronic diffidence, sociopathy, the virtual nonexistence of the conventional family can all be traced back to our level of respect for human rights. Moreover, these ills are self-perpetuating for, in the words of James Baldwin, “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to intimidate them.”