UN Rapporteur says political will essential to deal with ethnic polarisation
'founding fathers failed to lay foundations of united democratic nation'
Stabroek News
March 25, 2004

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Mr Doudou Diene, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations who visited Guyana in July 2003 has submitted that a vital precondition for the eradication of ethnic polarisation is "political will and a firm commitment on the part of all political leaders"

Mr Diene carried out a regional mission to Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago from 14 to 25 July 2003. One of the aims of the mission, "against a background of growing awareness at the United Nations of the urgency of the situation in Guyana", was to look into the state of race relations here.

In the Summary of his report he says he felt it would be useful for purposes of comparison, given the similar historical heritage - slavery and colonialism - and demographic composition of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, to use the occasion to visit Trinidad and Tobago also.

The Special Rapporteur says he approached this mission following the dual strategy he has devised to increase the efficacy of his mandate. "This strategy, inspired by the spirit and letter of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and geared towards finding lasting, in-depth solutions to racism, seeks not only to broaden and reinforce the legal and political responses to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, but also to promote greater understanding of the underlying causes, the bases, processes and mechanisms - whether ideological, cultural or psychological - whereby the culture and mindset of racism and discrimination perpetuate themselves. The Special Rapporteur is thus developing an approach that should enable de facto multi-ethnic societies to link action to combat racial discrimination with the long-term goal of constructing a genuinely pluralist society that shows respect for the various communities' specific characteristics, while also trying to promote interaction and unity among them.

Mr Diene said he noted the ethnic polarization among Guyanese of African, Hindu and Amerindian descent, reflected in the basically ethnic composition of the political parties, reproduced in the structure of State mechanisms, particularly in the public sector, the army and the police, which he said has had deep and lasting economic, social and cultural consequences. The various barriers - human, psychological, social and cultural - thrown up as a result of this polarization "have not merely distorted all aspects and forms of "living together", but have also perpetuated and reinforced a state of economic and social underdevelopment, to the detriment of the entire society, in a country that possesses extraordinary natural, human and intellectual resources."

He says that, despite everything, this polarization, in all communities and at all levels of society, has resulted not in feelings of hatred between communities but rather in a culture of fear and mistrust which pervades all social activity. He said that during his meetings and interviews, he noted the existence of a sense of belonging at all levels of society. "Therefore, at the basic level of the people's deepest feelings, Guyanese society does nurture the human values necessary for overcoming ethnic polarization and collectively building genuine pluralism, through which a dynamic, creative balance could enable cultural and spiritual differences to be recognized, respected, protected and promoted and universal values arising out of cross-fertilization among communities to be cultivated."

The Rapporteur finds that the story of Guyana is, to a deeply disturbing degree, the story of political exploitation of the race factor by every political leader from every point on the ideological spectrum. "The ghetto mentality has replaced the initially progressive, unitary ideology of the Guyanese nation's founding fathers, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, as the ultimate instrument of power, and it is this departure and the political practices to which it has given rise that are at the origin of the vicious cycle of ethnic polarization. Notwithstanding their undeniable historical contribution to the liberation and construction of the Guyanese nation - and indeed of the Caribbean as a whole - the founding fathers failed to the extent that they were unable, in the long run, to lay the foundations of a united, egalitarian and democratic nation."

Mr Diene states that the exploitation of ethnicity, nurtured and at times favoured by the "leaden ideologies of the cold war and by imperialist and regional strategies", has grown into a predatory political culture whose ultimate goal is simply the conquest and retention of power. In this context, political and social violence, with its ethnic associations, has been a major factor in social, as well as emotional and mental, insecurity. "The ethnic polarization of the main institutions of law and order - the police and the army - contributes in no small measure to the worsening of the climate of insecurity that hangs so heavily over every community. The Guyanese of all communities, whose everyday security, social stability, emotional balance and economic development have been thoroughly sapped, are keenly aware that they are now in the position of emblematic victims of the political practices carried out in their name."

In the course of his meetings, Mr Diene said he had found that every level of Guyanese society is permeated by a profound moral, emotional and political fatigue, arising out of the individual and collective impact of ethnic polarization. At the same time, however, he noted with hope the joint communiqué signed by President Jagdeo and opposition leader Mr. Corbin on 6 May 2003 which he described as a solemn reflection of the necessary political commitment at the highest political levels to ensure democracy, peace and development in Guyana.

Among his thirteen proposals the Special Rapporteur recommended the following measures:

* A vital precondition for the eradication of ethnic polarization is political will and a firm commitment on the part of all political leaders. The ultimate test of this political will now lies in good faith, strict ethics and the political determination, in words and deeds, to ensure that the reforms agreed in the communiqué signed by the President and the leader of the opposition on 6 May 2003, and in the follow-up agreement of 18 June 2003, are implemented. In that spirit, as a means of sustaining the momentum of political dialogue, the launching without delay of a formal dialogue on the question of inclusive governance, as envisaged in the communiqué, would be a particularly significant step in the process of constructive engagement, and a strong statement of political determination to put an end to both ethnic and political polarization. As things stand in Guyana, the concept of inclusive governance has the potential to transform Guyanese society and help it move forward, partly through the establishment of a new political and ethical culture in which the emphasis is on the well-being of the Guyanese people and on living together, rather than on the traditional goal of winning and staying in power; and partly through its psychological appeal to the popular imagination;

* The concept of "inclusiveness" - and indeed the whole democratic process - if it is to have relevance and contribute to ethnic depolarization, must clearly and fully embody Guyanese society's ethnic, cultural and political pluralism. Thus dialogue and consensus, if they are to be democratically meaningful, must embrace the leadership of the Amerindian community as a full participant. The fact that this sector of society was not involved in the initial drafting of the 6 May communiqué is a further sign of the discrimination and neglect from which it has traditionally suffered. Its participation is particularly appropriate not only because it will put an end to the Afro/Indo-Guyanese face-off - a key element in ethnic polarization - but also because the Amerindian community's appearance on the political stage, in the shape of the Guyana Action Party, establishes a new political order that could well depolarize political life and pave the way for genuine democratic pluralism. Parliament, too, should take a key role in the inter-ethnic political debate, one that should go beyond dialogue between the President and the leader of the opposition;

* A radical, visible and determined depolarization of both the leadership and the membership of the political parties;

* Urgent implementation of the 6 May communiqué and the follow-up agreement of 18 June 2003, through the following measures:

Political and democratic oversight of implementation through regular, visible and minuted consultations between all the political leaders of all communities, on the phases, processes, methods and mechanisms for implementation of the 6 May communiqué and the follow-up agreement;

The establishment, appointment of members to, and start-up of a mechanism for monitoring and oversight of the issues and measures agreed in the communiqué;

The effective functioning of all the parliamentary committees, and allocation of the required financial, logistical and human resources, staff training and orientation and provision of sufficient support in terms of documentation and research to ensure the requisite political independence;

* Greater prominence should be given to the committees' activities in the State and private media, through the minutes of their meetings, and in regular press conferences given by their chairs, i.e., using information to educate and to promote civic oversight and transparency in the democratic process of ethnic depolarization;

* Urgent attention should be paid to ethnic depolarization and pluralism in the security and defence services, the army and the police, in view of the enormous symbolic implications of their activities for social, political and ethnic insecurity and how they are perceived;

* Inasmuch as ethnic polarization is the clearest sign of democratic dysfunction, it is crucial that its eradication should be closely coordinated, and indeed should become the linchpin in reinforcement of the democratic process. In that spirit, and given the centrality and pervasiveness of ethnic polarization in every sphere of society, it will be necessary to devise, in a democratic manner, a national programme of action to eradicate ethnic polarization and combat racism and all forms of discrimination;

* To that end, a national commission should be established to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Such a mandate could be explicitly and formally given to the Ethnic Relations Commission established during the 2001 constitutional reform. The Commission's work should revolve around two main objectives: preparation of a white paper or report on the state of inter-ethnic and intercommunity relations; and preparation of a programme for the dismantling and eradication of ethnic polarization and all forms of discrimination, and for promoting relations and interaction between the communities. Such a programme should include a detailed timetable for implementation and encompass the economic, social and cultural aspects of Guyanese society. A mandate of this kind could obviate the need for a truth and reconciliation commission, which is another possibility. There are two main justifications for this recommendation: (a) the urgent need for collective therapy, through an exercise of collective memory on an issue obscured by glossings-over of history and by psychological repression and deep trauma; and (b) the need for a holistic vision and a global approach;

* Bold measures must therefore be taken as a matter of urgency, aimed not only at deepening the understanding of each community's history, culture and spirituality, but, at the same time, at turning the spotlight on interaction, that is to say collective, united progress through history towards a plural Guyanese identity. One essential step should be a thorough revision of the key vectors of national identity, namely education - in particular accounts of the history of Guyana - and communication - and especially the content and functions of the media. A constitutional commission on intercultural dialogue with those terms of reference is particularly to be recommended.

Intercultural dialogue should encompass interreligious dialogue, since ethnic polarization creates and fosters hermetic religious identities. Religious and spiritual leaders should be collectively involved in this process, in accordance with the principle of State neutrality in matters of religion. The intercultural dialogue should include events of a strongly symbolic nature involving the collective presentation, on a structured and regular basis, of different cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions - for example, a national festival of Guyanese cultures and traditions.

An event of this kind, which affirms both specific identities and the sense of belonging to one nation, can give powerful impetus to long-term efforts to repair the fabric of Guyanese culture;

* In the spirit of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, Guyana should play a fuller part in regional movements against racism and towards multilateralization and the building of plural identities, particularly in the Caribbean, where there are similarities not only in historical legacies of discrimination and ethnic and racial divisions, but also in demographic and community profiles.

During his visit Mr Diene met a large number of people from the political parties and civil society.