The Ethnic Relations Commission has disappointed Guyana – Commissioners should resign

Yesterday was exactly one year since the March 2,2020 Elections. One year ago, there occurred one of the most sordid examples of a governing party, or any political party, trying to steal an election while it was being live-streamed around the world, with observers from around the world present, including former Prime Ministers from CARICOM and Africa. The theft was stopped because Guyanese and global partners stood defiant.
One of the Guyanese organisations shamelessly silent during the five-month rigging saga between March 2 and August 2, 2020 was Guyana’s Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC). One year later, the ERC is making its own sordid story. It the last several days, the ERC has dominated the letter columns of newspapers in a way the Commission cannot be proud of. The ERC has been a total disappointment, letting down the Guyanese people. Guyana’s ERC today has betrayed the lofty goals that inspired so many of us to advocate for an ERC, has derailed the high ideals people thought that an ERC can promote in Guyana, and has trampled on the strong advocacy for its establishment during the constitutional consultations in the 1990s. While not painting all the commissioners with the same brush, the ERC, as it functions and is constituted presently, is not what Guyana deserves. For that reason, our position is that the commissioners should resign in their entirety, allowing Parliament to start afresh. The goals, the lofty ideals, are still relevant and still possible, but the Guyanese people have lost confidence in the existing ERC.
The present controversy of the Commission giving itself and its staff a handout of $150,000 for the commissioners and $100,000 for other staff members is an abuse of the resources the taxpayers doled out to the Commission. It does not matter that the Chairman deems the handout a COVID-19 relief and not a Christmas bonus. A relief package is the responsibility of the Government. While Guyana was reeling from COVID-19 between the months of March and August 2020, the then Government did not consider in any meaningful way giving a COVID-19 relief package.
Some people and some organisations advocated for such a package. One of the organisations that did not advocate quietly or aggressively was the ERC. It was silent as people called out for help, as people depended on food hampers to survive in many corners of this country.
When the new Government assumed office, they heard the voices of people calling for help. They aggressively promoted food-hamper drives, both by the public sector and the private sector, and through NGOs. The ERC was silent. When Government announced the $25,000 Per Family relief package, the ERC did not advocate in any way. We do not know how many families belonging to the commissioners or that have family members working for the Commission actually received the $25,000. But the Commission cannot use taxpayers’ money for such double-dipping purposes.
Some commissioners argued, supported by the ERC minutes, that the money was a Christmas bonus. This public dispute between commissioners is distasteful, and commissioners are pointing fingers at each other, openly accusing each other of lying. Whether it was a Christmas bonus or a COVID-19 relief package, the Commission abused public funds. While this is a constitutional subvention agency whose resources represent a charge on the Consolidated Fund, this legal status does not confer total independence on how taxpayers’ money can be spent. In fact, this is why constitutional bodies like the ERC must be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny that other budget agencies are under.
This Commission is one of the most important commissions the Constitution caters for. Recently, the Commission took some citizens to court for social media postings. It is a good start, but the social media has been rampant with racist and racial postings. Those actions by the Commission were only undertaken under pressure. The most egregious violators, the ones with political connections, have been spared. Either their racist ranting has been ignored or the ERC found some excuse to let them off the hook. When a prominent MP was caught with clearly racial ranting, the ERC not only excused her, but apologised to her for looking into the matter. The question is whether the ERC chickened out, or whether commissioners gave her a pass. Their excuse was they could not determine whether the posting was from her account or from a fake account. But that same account posted many things that the MP owned. It was a total abrogation of its duty – the ERC let a whole country down for expediency.
Who will forget the ERC giving GECOM and its former illegal Chairman a pass for actions clearly based on racial motivation when GECOM bypassed the then Deputy Chief Elections Officer, Vishnu Persaud, for renewal of his contract when he was clearly, by far, the most qualified candidate for the position, and appointed someone with no experience, a person now in front of the courts accused of fraud in the unsuccessful attempt to rig the elections of March 2020?
Guyana deserves better. The ERC is a disappointment, but its mission and ideals are still relevant. The commissioners should resign and permit our Parliament to start anew.