By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE government will seek to have the precautionary measures set by the Organisation of American States’ human rights arm for the protection of five Bahamian environmental lobbyists modified or lifted on the grounds that the men misrepresented and sensationalised their allegations to gain international attention.
Pointing to The Bahamas’ record as “one of the most stable, open and vibrant democracies in the Americas,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterised the claims levelled by members of environmental action group Save the Bays (STB) as “repugnant,” and accused applicants of tarnishing the country’s international reputation in a release issued on Saturday.
The statement expanded on its position taken last week in response to the resolution granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which calls on the government to take steps to protect the lives and personal integrity of five STB members and their nuclear families.
It follows a petition made by the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) on behalf of lawyer Fred Smith QC, journalist Francisco Nunez, activist Joseph Darville, musician Kirkland Bodie and environmentalist Romauld Ferreira. The petition alleges that the men have been subject to threats of harm, harassment and intimidation as a result of their advocacy and adversarial stance against the government and private developers on environmental issues, and that these actions have been endorsed by “official and unofficial” state agents.
“The Bahamas prides itself on being one of the most stable, open and vibrant democracies in the Americas,” the ministry’s statement read, “where the rights and freedoms of everyone have been protected by the State and its agencies. There is a culture of free speech and debate which has never attracted any retribution or retaliation from government, nor has the government permitted such actions by private individuals.
“No government of The Bahamas has ever permitted, condoned, tolerated, encouraged, facilitated and certainly not promoted situations where the lives and physical integrity of any person has knowingly been put in fear of imminent danger of irreparable harm.”
The IACHR found that the five STB members are in “a serious and urgent situation since their lives and personal integrity face an imminent risk of irreparable harm.” The resolution requires the Bahamas government to adopt the necessary measures to protect their lives and those of their families, to ensure the five men could pursue their work as human rights defenders without being subject to threats, harassment or intimidation, to agree with the petitioners on the measures to be adopted and to report on investigative actions taken within a 20 day period.
Last week, the ministry termed the ruling “regrettable”, and underscored that its review of the allegations revealed that claims were not properly grounded in facts, and lacked evidence or legal merit. In its latest release, the ministry reiterates its concern and “profound regret” that the IACHR granted the precautionary measures without hearing any factual or legal submissions, and made their determination solely on “one-sided representations.”
The statement maintained that the government is preparing a response to the IACHR that will set out the “true nature of the facts” and reveal that “allegations presented to the commission by STB were misrepresented and sensationalised to garner international attention—and disguise the personal motivation behind several of the legal cases they are marshalling before the Bahamian courts.”
“It is repugnant to our constitutional philosophy and way of life,” the ministry’s statement continued, “and Bahamians would find it distasteful and unthinkable that any among us would paint this picture of our society and nation before an international human rights body, especially for the wrong reasons.
“The government of The Bahamas will therefore do all it can to remove this tarnish from the international reputation of The Bahamas and ensure that the Royal Bahamas Police Force and other law enforcement agencies continue to take prompt action to investigate all complaints by persons and ensure the public safety of all citizens and other persons within The Bahamas.”
Hitting back, the GBHRA yesterday denounced the recent statements issued by the government will result in the further stigmatisation and vilification of the STB members.
Taking issue with the government’s portrayal, the GBHRA statement read: “Yet we all know that under this present regime, the writers of songs deemed offensive to the powers that be; attorneys who speak their mind to the annoyance of law enforcement; and human rights activists who level claims of abuse at the authorities have all found themselves facing official intimidation, detention and the prospect of brutal, archaic and anti-democratic charges such as criminal libel.
“Who does this government think it is fooling?”
The group said it has filed an official report to the commission over the releases, and that it is prepared to take the matter before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if the government refuses to “live up to its international obligations and persists in vilifying and intimidating human rights and environmental advocates.”
The GBHRA said it also filed a report with United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Americas Watch, among other international organisations currently considering applications by the group on behalf of STB members.
“Meanwhile and although nearly half the time granted by the commission for the state to report back on the actions it has taken to protect the Beneficiaries, to our knowledge no steps have been taken to comply with the requirements mandated by the commission,” the GBHRA release read.
“We know of no measures adopted or even contemplated to protect the lives and personal integrity of the beneficiaries; no measures to ensure they can pursue their advocacy work without being subject to any threats harassment and intimidation (in fact, the opposite has taken place); and no effort to reach out to the Beneficiaries to agree on the measures to be adopted.
“It seems clear that rather than adhere to the letter and spirit of the precautionary measure, senior state actors seem intent on further stigmatising human rights defenders and further perpetuating a hostile atmosphere in which they cannot pursue their work.”