Attorney General Carl Bethel.
By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
ATTORNEY General Carl Bethel delivered a robust defence of Bahamian sovereignty yesterday in response to a claim that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) can order the country to change its citizenship laws.
The Bahamas was called before the IACHR in Jamaica last week in response to a petition on the treatment of migrants and their descendants from Rights Bahamas and the Washington-based group, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights. During the hearing, Margarette Macaulay, rapporteur on the Rights of Women and Persons of African Descent and against Racial Discrimination, said the body could rule that The Bahamas must amend its laws. She invited civil society to pursue legal action that could produce such an outcome.
As the Senate debated and later passed Immigration Act amendments yesterday evening, Mr Bethel denounced the idea that the country’s citizenship laws are under threat from an international court challenge.
“There is not a country on earth that will mortgage off its right to control its own borders,” he said. “You might as well sign up to be a client state. And so the Bahamian people can rest assured that this government will fully, thoroughly, completely and comprehensively defend the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas against all who would challenge it and as they say in America, foreign or domestic. We will defend the sovereignty of the Bahamas and the right of the Bahamian people to chart their own destiny in matters that are fundamental to their constitution and to their constitutional expectations and protections.
“We will in due course put out a properly diplomatically worded statement to send to (to the IACHR) to indicate that we feel that they may have gone a little to far in some of the rhetoric exchanged across the table. I’m not sure if it is the appropriate actions of the commission to invite people to sue their own government. I’m not sure that’s within the remit of their duty. But let us deal with it at that level in the appropriate way. I want to assure the Bahamian people that they need not fear that this government or any government is ever going to give grounds on something as fundamental as the right to Bahamian citizenship under our constitution.”
For his part, Immigration Minister Brent Symonette said he has “difficulty” with international bodies that attempt to force sovereign states to act outside “the best interest of that country.” The Bahamas has held two referenda to address issues of gender inequality in the constitution, both rejected by the electorate.
During Friday’s hearing, the IACHR president raised concerns about detention of migrants and statelessness in the Bahamas.
President Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño said: “I emphasise the right not to be detained because of migrant status. It cannot be due to the fact of being a migrant, there is a prohibition of that. To be a migrant is not an offence, it is not a crime and prison, detention is for crimes, violations of the law.”
She added: “There are so many stateless children who were born in the Bahamas and cannot get citizenship because they cannot provide the sufficient documentation in order to get it, and even when they’re 18 they have to apply for citizenship within a certain time or they miss the boat if they exceed that time. This is extremely difficult to accept and the commission wants to work with the Bahamas to see how we can resolve this issue.”
Mr Symonette said he will reserve full commentary until he has spoken to Minister of State for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson who represented the Bahamas during the hearings.
However, he said: “I think unfortunately we have to look at the total picture in the Bahamas. I don’t think a number of persons fully appreciate the influx of illegal immigrants here in the Bahamas and the cost. So, for instance a boatload of 100 persons arrive on our shore today—are we supposed to let them walk around the street until we decide when to repatriate them? These are issues. We have 100,000 square miles of water; illegal immigration is a large problem. We spend about $1.6m a year repatriating non-Bahamians.”
On the issue of statelessness, he said: “There are economic conditions in Haiti that require that persons leave…Did they take into consideration the fact that we had a number of persons die in Abaco recently? These are real situations that affect each and every one of us. They talked about statelessness for instance and that’s not a provision in certain areas because a person has the right to apply for citizenship.
“So stateless becomes, when you are stateless in my opinion, which is, I mean you’ve got to be careful on that tight frame. So in some countries, third generation born outside the country are stateless —fine, we can deal with that. But someone who’s born, first generation born in the Bahamas, has the right to a passport of another country. They always have that. So they are not stateless. That’s very clear. Now whether or not they want to go and get that passport is a different issue.
“So for a commission to say they’re stateless, I have a different understanding of the law than what they’re saying.”