On Tuesday, on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, President Dr Irfaan Ali swore-in eight of the 10-members of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC).
This could not have come at a more apt time, considering the controversial public meeting in which a Working People’s Alliance (WPA) leader went as far as to suggest that the Disciplined Services should use their guns against the state.
We couldn’t agree more when President Dr Irfaan Ali when he told the new commissioners: “Racial, religious and cultural divisions, if allowed to become malignant, will eat away at the very fabric of our society, disrupting human and social relations, retarding national development, and corroding national values. In other parts of the world, we have seen the deaths, injuries and carnage resulting from such conflicts. Diversity is an asset we must value and cherish. Greater inclusion and equality are goals to which we must continuously aspire…The work of the commission is non-partisan. It must rise above sectarian interests, and work for the common good of our society.”
The first ERC was formed on March 8, 2002, and was chaired by Juan Edghill (who was the Christian representative, now Public Works Minister). The tenure constitutionally expired in 2006. From then, right up to 2015, an inordinate period of time expired, during which the country saw the running-off of two elections (viz, in 2011 and 2015), no new Commission was established to replace the first Commission, which over time became mired in a host of issues, such as court matters instigated by the main parliamentary Opposition challenging the organisation’s constitutionality; loss of membership through attrition – resignations, deaths, illness, and migration – resulting in the lack of a decision-making quorum and, to some extent, a loss of public trust and confidence in the organisation’s credibility.
Subsequently, after the results of the 2011 general and regional elections transformed the PPP/C into a minority Government, the framework for a new ERC was agreed to in 2013 between the Government and the parliamentary Opposition parties – APNU and AFC. At that time, it was consensually agreed by the Government and the Opposition parties to add three more constituents – namely, the ethnic representatives of the country’s African, East Indian, and Amerindian peoples – to the original mix of representatives, thus increasing the total number of elected members from 7 to 10. The process to select the nominees for the new Commission concluded in 2014, and the names of those selected were made public. But, for some inexplicable reason, they were never sworn-in as Commissioners.
However, notwithstanding all that has gone before, the current administration, to its credit, has ensured the swearing-in of a new Commission, and in this regard, it should be aptly commended.
Strictly speaking, by way of comparison, the ERC is probably the most powerful of all the rights commissions established in this country after independence. Based on the powers ascribed to it by the Constitution, it is more or less a quasi-judicial body that can summon, adjudicate, and penalise.
It is pellucid that the ERC, when constituted, will be especially critical to pre-empting and ameliorating the divisive ethnic intolerance that usually overshadows the country’s elections periods, while generally mediating and arbitrating, all year round, the varied ethnic problems abounding within our polity, and which daily threaten the country’s very existence.
In fact, the move to put together the ERC at this time is most propitious.
Undeniably, the journey ahead for this new Commission is going to be predictably challenging and painstaking in service to country.
We share the sentiments of the Head of State when he said on Tuesday that Government takes seriously any attempt to instigate racial animosity and racial violence within our country, severely condemns attempts to provoke racial conflicts in our society, and would ensure that those guilty are subject to the sanctions imposed by law. The President has also urged all Guyanese to reject all racially-laced rhetoric, and to not allow themselves to be misled by those who wish to use race and ethnicity to stoke divisions and hatred in our society, even as he promised, “My Government will continue under the One Guyana agenda to promote harmonious relations within our society.”