After a hiatus of eight years, the National Assembly reconstituted the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) in the beginning of 2018 with new representatives selected by the constitutionally-mandated bodies to serve on that body. The ERC had its genesis in the aftermath of the People’s National Congress (PNC)-induced protests and riots following the 1997 General Election, which they claimed was fatally flawed. As part of the Herdmanston Accord brokered by Caricom and signed on January 17, 1998, the ERC was established as a constitutional body by Constitutional Amendment (#2) Act of 2000, which was assented to by the President on August 11, 2000. It was finally launched in 2003 in the throes of the violence with Buxton as its epicentre.
As such, the ERC held out great promise to finally address the ethnic fears and interests that drove the political system in Guyana. Its legitimacy was intentionally made very wide, to include the widest possible participation of Guyanese civil society – defined broadly as those organisations working outside of the governmental apparatus: Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious bodies; the Labour Movement; Private Sector; Youth; Women’s Organisations; Afro-Guyanese; Indo-Guyanese; and Indigenous/Amerindian bodies. As can be seen, the members of the ERC are not drawn only from “ethnic” organisations.
The mandate of the ERC, as adumbrated in Article 212A of the Constitution, was extremely wide, and detailed in 24 functions that were both proactive and reactive to the very ethnic issues that were being articulated at the time by the armed gunmen. For instance, on the first prong, the ERC could: “Identify and analyse factors inhibiting the attainment of harmonious relations between ethnic groups, particularly barriers to the participation of any ethnic group in social, economic, commercial, financial, cultural and political endeavours; and recommend to the National Assembly or other relevant Public or Private Sector bodies how these factors should be overcome”.
Sadly, it must be conceded that the ERC never really fulfilled the promise of its formation and blame may be laid at the feet of many, including itself and the PNC. The latter objected to the operations of the institution that was supposed to be independent and autonomous. By 2011, just before the General Election scheduled for that year, Robert Corbin, then leader of the PNC, filed an injunction against the ERC that effectively derailed the organisation.
Even though the PNC-led A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance For Change (AFC) controlled the National Assembly following the 2011 elections, and chaired the Appointments Committee, they never reconstituted the ERC in that Parliament. After their victory at the 2015 elections, they launched a new “Social Cohesion” Ministry, which had incorporated much of the proactive agenda of the ERC. In fact, early in the new Administration, it was explicitly stated that the Social Cohesion Ministry would deal with “ethnic relations”. However, as described above, the ERC was reconstituted in 2018, but its performance since then can hardly be described as “salutary” even as the incumbent APNU/AFC Government launched a most ethnically-polarising programme ranging from the firing of thousands of Indigenous peoples employed in the Hinterland Employment and Youth Service (HEYS) to firing of even more thousands in the sugar industry in an ethnically-directed manner.
In the midst of the five-month war of attrition waged by APNU/AFC to remain in office through rigged elections, there were countless opportunities for the ERC to intervene in the racially-charged atmosphere created especially by social media, but these were addressed in the breach, at best. In the aftermath of the brutal killing of Joel and Isaiah Henry, followed by the murders of Haresh Singh and Prettipaul Hargobin, the ERC has been very reactive and not intervening affirmatively as they should have to prevent the situation from careening out of control as the protests over the murders morphed into racially- directed violence.
The Government needs to review the bona fides of this organisation for which it has just allocated $220 million.