‘Walking the talk’ on social cohesion

The Coalition Administration has, in recent months, come under severe fire from several stakeholder groups for the manner in which it has treated the issue regarding the reconstitution of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC). Many have expressed the view that while the Government is talking about social cohesion, the fact that it is dragging its feet on re-establishing the ERC shows that it is not really serious about ‘walking the talk’.
The Commission has been virtually dysfunctional since 2011, when then Opposition Leader Robert Corbin secured an injunction against the body, barring the Chairman and two Commissioners from taking any decision, making any recommendation, or issuing any direction, on behalf of the constitutional body.
Once it is re-established, this would be the country’s second ERC, replacing the first, which was formed on March 8, 2002. The first ERC was chaired by Bishop Juan Edghill (who was the Christian representative), and its tenure constitutionally expired in 2006. From then right up to 2015, an inordinate period of time during which the country saw the running-off of two General 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, illnesses, 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 3 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.
It was reported in this newspaper recently that the Committee of Appointments, headed by Dr George Norton, has concluded its work months ago. It is on the Order Paper for the approval of the nominees. But, so far, it seems as if no genuine effort is being made to bring the matter to finality. Many have questioned the real reasons for the delay, but, so far, the Government has just been very forthcoming as to when the process will be finalised.
As it currently stands, the next step in the process is for the Committee to submit the ten nominees to the National Assembly for approval via a motion. It is required that there be a two-thirds’ majority approval before the nominees can become official and be presented to the President for swearing in.
There is no doubt that the ERC plays an integral role in protecting and preserving the interests of all stakeholders, as far as creating an atmosphere of tolerance and harmony among the different races and ethnic groups in Guyana’s diverse society is concerned.
While the newly-established Social Cohesion Ministry also has an important role to play in ensuring peace and harmony at the local and national levels etc., its mandate is not the same as the ERC’s. The ERC is a constitutional body established under the Herdmanston Accord. It works with persons and agencies to promote harmonious ethnic relations. The Commission also deals with complaints, promotes training in racial harmony, and fosters a sense of security among all ethnic groups.
The ERC is probably the most powerful of all the Rights Commissions established in this country after Independence. It has an extremely important role to play in national unity and development. It is therefore hoped that the Government would cease delaying the reconstitution of this constitutional body and move with haste in bringing the process to finality.