By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
WASHINGTON, DC - The Grand Bahamas Human Rights Association (GBHRA) and its affiliates have been assigned a special monitor by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to gather information on claims of victimisation and stigmatisation.
The assignment follows thematic hearings on the human rights of migrants in the country, and comes at a time when concerns for the protection of human rights defenders in the region have become increasingly worrisome, according to Edison Lanza, IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.
Mr Lanza pointed out that issues of migrant rights appeared to be a growing contention between human rights defenders and states in the region, where there has also been considerable delay from states in adopting mechanisms that could ensure freedom of information. He discussed regional trends concerning the right to freedom of expression in an exclusive interview with The Tribune.
“The first one is the use of criminal laws to censor speech concerning governmental activities,” he said, “or public interest themes. Specifically we have seen states passing very vague criminal legislation and it is being utilised mostly against people defending migrant rights and that is simply unacceptable according to the standards of international human rights law and the special protections afforded by the Inter-American human rights system.
“The second problem that we’re experiencing and that we can recognise is the stigmatisation of the work of human rights defenders in the region specifically coming directly from government officials and state agents.”
Mr Lanza explained that the stigmatisation was directed specifically at human rights defenders that are vocal on migrant issues, but also defenders who are involved with multiple different issues. Acknowledging that state agents also had a right to freedom of expression, Mr Lanza said it was important that their privilege was used responsibly and not in a manner to incite repercussions against a particular defender for expressing their views.
“The state has an obligation and a duty to protect these human rights defenders,” he said, “and so by stigmatising a particular person, they are inciting others specifically agents or others in the population to expose or attack these human rights defenders.”
Mr Lanza added that there was a lot of hesitation from different governments to adopt Freedom of Information mechanisms, standards that are common and recognised throughout the system.
The Freedom of Expression (FOE) division prepares an annual report on the situation of freedom of expression in the hemisphere and each Organisation of American States member state is monitored; however, Mr Lanza noted that the organisation had more information on Latin America concerning risks that could lead to FOE violations.
He noted the “big backlash” against migrant human rights defenders in the Dominican Republic, and against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) defenders in Jamaica.
Mr Lanza said: “States have failed to recognise that migrants are not an issue. It is a human right of persons to move and try to improve and pursue their happiness and that a strong migrant community enriches the population and enriches the country in which they are a part of. In the context of freedom of expression, what we have seen that is really worrisome that the states are impeding or not allowing for a public discussion on these issues by attacking either the journalist who cover these issues or the human rights defenders who are dedicated to protecting these vulnerable populations.
“Or media whose editorial point of view is not the same as the government and that they are punished for having that dissenting point of view,” he added.
On Friday, Mr Lanza met GBHRA executives Fred Smith and Joe Darville, former radio talk show host Louby Georges and Pierre Parisien, of the Haitian Organisation for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS and STDs.
The GBHRA and Mr Parisien participated in the thematic hearing at the IACHR session, alongside international human rights groups Robert F Kennedy Human Rights and the Caribbean Institute for Human Rights. The group discussed concerns over recent government statements against petitioners, characterising them as defamers of the country, and the risks to livelihood associated with activism in the Bahamas.
Mr Smith pointed to numerous complaints filed with Commissioner of Police, including calls for an investigation into hate speech and hostile demonstrations directed at his environmental work with Save The Bays, and several members of the environmental group.
Mr Georges’ show, the Kreyol Connection, was dropped from the Guardian Talk Radio line-up last month amid an investigation by the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) into comments made on the show by Mr Smith.
While the decision could not be viewed as victimisation, Mr Georges said the government’s public statements regarding his show have had a serious impact on his livelihood.
The group also referred to the backlash experienced by journalist Noelle Nicolls after she reported on allegations that a Jamaican migrant was raped by a senior immigration official. It was reported that Ms Nicolls, who also works as a consultant, was threatened with the termination of an unrelated government contract.
Following the informal meeting, Mr Lanza provided the group with a monitor who would be responsible for collecting documentation of their claims.
In a later interview with The Tribune, Mr Lanza said: “It is important to realise and put in perspective that the commission has an obligation to promote and to protect human rights. That is why the commission has developed standardised systems concerning specific issues of human rights. When a state through its agents is acting in conflict with those obligations, the commission – and in this case the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression – are two of many mechanisms that the state can access.”
Mr Lanza added that there were multiple channels for technical assistance available to ensure states comply with the conventions that they have sworn to uphold, which include its obligation to human rights defenders and journalists.
Another protection mechanism, Mr Lanza explained, is an adversarial system that allows for an individual’s petition to be submitted against a government entity. This mechanism can be used when a person believes themselves to be a victim of a human rights violation, and that they have either exhausted all domestic remedies or if the domestic system does not offer any recourse.
Mr Lanza is an international lawyer and journalist, and was appointed to the IACHR’s Freedom of Expression division in October.