Busts of Glanville Fonseca and Howard Penn, two candidates in the 1967 general election, are among the four statues in front of the House of Assembly chambers. (File Photo: CONOR KING DEVITT)

Despite being scheduled for a debate and vote in this week’s House of Assembly sitting, the Human Rights Commission Act was dropped from legislators’ agenda, representing the latest in a long series of delays for the law.

The commission — which is provided for in the 2007 Constitution — would be tasked with investigating and reconciling complaints about human rights infringements.

The 2018 act would grant it the power to issue subpoenas and request necessary documents. However, it appears that the commission could only deal with a complaint if all parties involved consent to the investigation. If they do not, the HRC would not be able to continue the process — though it could make a report to the attorney general regarding the investigation.

As described by the law, the commission would also be responsible for informing the public about constitutional rights and dispensing advice on human-rights-related procedures and policy.

The act would also require the commissioners to regularly inspect detention facilities to ensure that no cruel or degrading treatment is being inflicted on prisoners.

To that end, they would have access to detention facility information and the authority to conduct interviews with inmates without witnesses.

“The Human Rights Commission Act, 2018 was dropped from the sitting’s agenda as there were many matters on the agenda that caused the act to be deferred,” Premier Dr. Orlando Smith wrote in a message to the Beacon when asked about the order paper alteration. “It is most likely to come up in the next sitting.”

A history of delays

Despite numerous declarations of support from members of both major political parties, work to establish the commission has been plagued by false starts, abandoned promises and indecisiveness.

In Speeches from the Throne, government promised to introduce HRC legislation in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2018.

Also, each year from 2009 to 2015, lawmakers allocated about $100,000 for the commission’s establishment. In 2016 and 2017, about $10,000 was earmarked. Budget documents indicate that none of this money was spent, however.

This year $6,500 was earmarked, according to the 2018 budget estimates.

In December 2009, Government Information Services announced that the Attorney General’s Chambers was scheduled to start public consultations on draft HRC legislation, envisioning a “Human Rights Act of 2010.” Public meetings on the draft began the next month. In April 2014, an HRC bill was introduced to the House of Assembly.

The legislation, however, was dropped from subsequent HOA agendas without explanation. In June 2016, then-Deputy Governor’s Office Permanent Secretary David Archer — who is now the deputy governor — told the Beacon that no formal decision had been made regarding the establishment of a standalone department for the HRC.

That September, Complaints Commissioner Sheila Braithwaite said she expected the HRC to be established by early 2017.

Last year, Mr. Aziz moved a motion for the first reading of a 2017 act providing for the HRC.

Examination period?

Multiple lawmakers, however, emphasised then that such an act would require a long examination period.

“I don’t think this bill should be rushed quickly to the second and third readings,” Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) said at the time, adding, “I do believe it should take some time to be well-aired and ventilated in the public.”

The 2018 act was given a first reading in April.

The territory’s lack of an HRC sets it behind several other Caribbean jurisdictions that have established a body with similar functions, according to the late Elton Georges, a former deputy governor who had long advocated for the commission.

“I think we are lacking on that part of civil society in the BVI as a whole,” he said in 2016. “We have very few public watchdog groups. … I think it is of great importance that people are educated, and I would see that as the premier objective of the HRC: to educate people as widely as possible about human rights and why they are important.”

HRC details

The Human Rights Commission Act, 2018 — Gazetted on July 19 — calls for the same five-member commission as the 2014 and 2017 bills: two members nominated by the governor, one nominated by the premier, one nominated by the opposition leader, and a legal practitioner nominated by the chief justice.

One of the governor’s nominees is required to be a resident of an island other than Tortola.

At least once a year, the commission would also be required to schedule a meeting with residents from other islands.