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)

The establishment of the long-delayed Human Rights Commission has been postponed once again.

Last week, after debating a bill designed to bring forward the commission, House of Assembly lawmakers broke into a closed-door committee stage to tinker with the legislation clause by clause.

They didn’t finish the process, however, and instead chose to refer the bill to a select committee for review, according to HOA Information Officer Linton Leonard. Normally, a bill is amended in committee stage and then passed.

Lawmakers did not publicise a timeline for the select committee’s review, and Premier Dr. Orlando Smith could not be reached for comment. Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering (R-D7) — who is acting as premier while Dr. Smith (R-at large) is away from the territory — also could not be reached.

Functions

The commission, which is provided for in the 2007 Constitution, would be tasked with investigating and reconciling complaints about human rights infringements. The current bill before the House is titled the Human Rights Commission Act, 2018.

According to the most recent draft of that bill, the HRC would have the power to issue subpoenas and demand interviews and documents related to its investigations.

The commission’s teeth, however, seem to be limited: It appears that the body would be allowed to process a complaint only if all parties involved consent to the investigation. If they do not, it would not be able to continue the process — though the commissioners could send a report to the attorney general regarding the probe.

The commission would also be responsible for informing the public about constitutional rights and dispensing advice on human-rights-related procedures and policy.

Additionally, the act would 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 sites and information and the authority to conduct interviews with inmates without witnesses.

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.

Different iterations of the HRC Act have also surfaced in multiple HOA sittings, though none have been passed.

Last week’s debate

Last week, after Attorney General Baba Aziz motioned for a second reading of the HRC Act, Education and Culture and Minister Myron Walwyn was the first to rise in support of it.

“This bill is in my opinion one of the most important pieces of legislation that has ever come to this House of Assembly,” Mr. Walwyn (R-at large) said. “It’s a piece of legislation that is in keeping with the principals that we espouse ourselves to be in a community, as a community of laws, a community of good governance, a community that operates on the world stage.”

The minister argued that the commission would offer an essential avenue for redress to those who feel their constitutionally enshrined rights have been violated, especially given that many people can’t afford to seek recourse through the courts.

Mr. Walwyn also said he was happy that the act would bind the Crown.

“Because in many respects, the Crown being the government in this case, sometimes we do things that are not right,” he explained. “Sometimes we make arbitrary decisions that if citizens only had the courage sometimes to take action, the government very often would be embarrassed with some of the decisions that we make.”

Still, the minister expressed some reservations about certain limits on the commission’s power. Simply referring its investigation findings to the court when it is not able to reach settlement is not a good system, he explained, since that process leaves lower-income complainants with the same problems the commission is supposed to reduce.

“We need to give the commission more power to achieve redress,” he said.

Complaints across the aisle

Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie (R-D1) complained that not enough had been included in the act to specifically protect the rights of Virgin Islanders. He promised to work to include “more balance” in the bill during committee stage.

His partner in the opposition, Julian Fraser, took a harsher tack against the legislation. The Third District representative said the current government doesn’t have what he believes is the necessary “mandate” to pass such an important act, alluding to rumours about retirements, infighting and splinters within the governing National Democratic Party.

Not enough is known about the legislation, he argued, alleging that NDP lawmakers are trying to push the bill through to get “brownie points” in the twilight stage of an election cycle. He questioned their sense of urgency.

“If we could drag our feet for 11 years to pass a piece of legislation, to bring a legislation to this House, pertaining to that Constitution that required it back in 2007, and come now to believe that this is so crucial, so how were people living for the last 11 years without it if it’s so crucial?” Mr. Fraser asked.

He claimed the territory has been doing just fine with the human rights protections laid out in the Constitution, and that there are existing “provisions” in the VI available for people who might not have the money to air their complaints in court. He did not name specifics of these provisions, however.

More consultations?

Mr. Fraser also said the act needs further public consultation before becoming law, and he criticised a provision empowering the governor to nominate two commissioners.

“Does the governor know anyone around the Virgin Islands who he could nominate for this?” he asked.

Government backbencher Mitch Turnbull agreed that the bill needed further review in the public. The Second District representative has repeatedly broken rank with fellow members of his party in the past year and a half.

The premier spoke near the end of the debate and expressed support for the bill, echoing Mr. Walwyn’s point that it is necessary to provide people with a new way to access protection for their rights. There are some serious human rights issues in the territory, Dr. Smith noted.

He also questioned Mr. Fraser’s logic regarding whether government has the “mandate” to pass it.

“Whose mandate is it?” the premier asked. “I thought it was the mandate of every legislator, the responsibility of every legislator, the wish of every legislator, to make sure the human rights of everybody in this territory are defended. It’s not about this government: It’s about this House of Assembly.”

Mr. Aziz concluded the debate by noting that “island-wide” consultations and seminars about the Human Rights Commission were held in 2009.


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