Guyana’s Follow-up1526 09 Aug, 2012
Mr. Nagamootoo: [Mr. Ali: Moses, haul you so and so…] That is better than corporal punishment. If you had been my grandson I would have not spare the rod. Do you see how he is spoilt?
The Alliance For Change, first of all, wishes to state that because of the controversial nature of the subject matters of this motion that it sees it as a matter of conscience. I may not here speak for all Members of the Alliance For Change nor could I speak for all members of my constituency throughout Guyana, and even wider afield. Suffice to say here that, as my honourable colleague, and Member, Amna Ally, I suspect that bringing these three very important, very far-reaching, proposals in one motion that we may incur that response of evoking only one type of response to one proposal rather than all. I want to suggest, and make this proposal to the Hon. Prime Minister, mover of the motion, that the Prime Minister may well wish, rather than lumping these three subject matters in one motion and send to one Special Select Committee, that they should be sent to three Special Select Committees, one subject area for each Special Select Committee so that there could be the full and undivided ventilation of views on a particular matter. That is a proposal, and I believe…
Mr. Speaker: But you do have the power to move an amendment as a Member.
Mr. Nagamootoo: I am making a proposal at this point. Whether we move an amendment or not, it is a different issue, but it is an observation that I am making, and I will tell you why, Mr. Speaker. I recall that the same passion with which Members of the Government may wish to respond to a proposal that when I was the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee Constitutional Reform, oversight, we received very strong and very passionate representation on the issue of non-discrimination of persons because of their sexual orientation and at that time it came to this House as a proposal with strong recommendation only to find that when it was submitted for passage it was blocked. Selectively, there could be matters isolated and dealt with in a particular way if they are being brought all in one heap. There were one hundred and seventy-one recommendations for the amendment to the laws out of the constitutional reform process. Most of them, in fact, have been put into law; amendments have been made. I am sure that one or two that required simple majority, constitutional changes might have been made, but some of those, I think about fifty-five areas, are still outstanding and those are the problematic ones that required referendum.
We did go through a process, from 1996, of dealing with controversial issues. I am saying this out of experience, because there were members of the religious community. Some people said it was a subcultural group. The Rastafarian community, which came before us in this House, made very passionate appeal for the decriminalisation of the position of marijuana, cannabis sativa, and we felt, all the Members of the Committee felt, that it was a learned experience because we were getting people from another side who are involved in the use, as they said, of the “herb” for particular purposes to do with their religion. We had them to speak to us and yet when we came to the National Assembly to amend the law we had only allowed what was described loosely as the recreational use of marijuana, that if a person had five or less grams of the substance then it will not required custodial sentence or the person will have community service. It shows that one has to take very great care…
I had, myself, in pursuant of my interest in this area, been shown with one Michael Layne, we visited from Jamaica, an attorney, in the 1970s, Ethiopia. We wanted to see how the Ethiopian society was dealing with the use of herbs. We went to a particular community and we saw the wholesale use of it as I saw in Madras, the Kali temples, where people use something called sambrani. They use it there to evoke smoke, incense, and so on. Different societies deal with controversial issues differently. My argument here is that people deal with different controversial issues differently. I did not feel that it will do justice to these matters if we lump them all together. That is the proposal I am making. [An Hon. Member: It is laziness.] I am not saying that I am open to derision as someone said I am lazy to put an amendment. It is not laziness. It is a proposal because this came from the Government and it has an interest, because the Government, on behalf of the State of Guyana, acceded to certain conventions and therefore it has an obligation to carry through with those conventions - the language, the intent, the letter of the convention - and it is in their interest that I am trying to make the proposal.
I recall, and I will share a small experience, that I was hardly the age of fourteen, I believe, when I was sitting the Pupil Teacher’s Examination at the Auchiyne school I received a report of my younger sibling having been flogged by a teacher. I went down, and I remember putting the teacher to stand on a bench, and I took away the ruler with which he had injured my brother who was just about five or six years old. I took a very strong objection, even in my formative days, to corporal punishment, to the administration of punishment in school. One occasion, even before I met the Pupil Teacher’s Examination level, when I was in the Third Standard of the primary school, my brother, who was older than me by two years, was about to be flogged by a teacher with a broad whip, with a leather, he got nought in an exam, Dictation, and I volunteered to take the lashes for him because he was the one rearing our parents cows in the back dam. I can tell that it was not the lashes that I received on my naked hands that I was revolting, but it was the venom with which that teacher brought that leather on my hands. I realise that though we have been tempted in different stages of our life, even I, as a teacher, to use the cane on occasion that it was a cruel punishment inflicted on children in school.
When I was over there I remember a Member of the AFC, Shantella Smith, then Hon. Member, had tabled a motion calling for the abolition of corporal punishment, I believe limited to the school. It was in the Eighth Parliament, I believe. [Mr. Ramjattan: It was the last Parliament.] It was the last Parliament. I did not think it was carried because then it was considered to be a very raw subject area, and I am not apologising for the decision taken. Maybe, it was part of our gestation that we allow these things to come into the domain of the National Assembly and not approve in one swoop. I recall also that the motion had stated that parents should be left with the rights to administer reasonable chastisement of their children, to scold their children, which is different from corporal punishment or cruel punishment. This subject is too serious to be talking to some people who do not know parental responsibility or even responsibility of grandparents. I give those examples and wish them well on their sojourn to graduate to my stage, if ever they do, that I am not selecting corporal punishment as an area, but I still say there are mixed views on this and there are a lot of people who would like to be heard on this alone.
In regard to the right to life, Guyana is a death penalty country and we have had experience where, in the worst of moments, there had been clamour for the rope to spin or the rope to swing. People had called on the society in the days of kick-down-the-door banditry for the rope to swing. It was a debate that fluctuated with different episodes of criminal activities and the nature of criminal activities. I recall that during the presidency of Mr. Hoyte that some persons were sent to the gallows and it did act as a deterrent. The message was out there that if a person would have kicked down the doors and would have killed that person would have committed the felony of murder then that person would have faced the full blunt of the law, as it is in Guyana. It is the same with other criminal offences that there is public policies that are developed at different times of people calling for varying harsh penalties.
We had seen the pause in hanging because of the evolution of human rights convention and the debates that have taken place in other parts of the world. In fact, one of the reasons we are on record of not having had a full investigation or a proper investigation into the assassination of Walter Rodney was that we could not have had the French Government to extradite the alleged conspirator/assassin from Cayenne, Gregory Smith, unless Guyana could have given the assurance to the Government of France that if he was extradited he would not have faced death penalty if convicted. I believe that was one of the hurdles. I am not speaking here…I think one gives recognition where it is due, because I was confronted a few months ago in the United States of America with a question, during a lecture I was giving, why was no one brought to justice in relation to death of Rodney? I gave that as an explanation because I believe that some of the criticisms levied were unfair, that as if nothing had been done. Of course, there were other hurdles of translating documents into French.
We have, because of treaty obligations, taken a different stance. As I said, the European Commission on Human Rights has also come out very strongly against death penalty. Sometimes assistance – nobody says this openly but assistance from some countries in some areas, particularly dealing with the security sector - is tied to what policy those countries have. And these donor countries would like the receiving country to adopt similar laws before they benefit from their taxpayers’ money. That is why we are caught up… Even in Guyana, during the infamous or famous Yassin trial, I recall two of our own former Attorneys-General being involved in the defence and otherwise the prosecution of these matters and these cases were taken to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The Commission had written - if I can recall... I am giving this extemporaneously, not on a prepared text, to show how we are influenced in Guyana to stay execution. In fact, since then two of those persons may have died in prison while on death row. But we have had to be influenced by what was taking place outside of Guyana. I am not taken by surprise that this debate on the abolition of the death penalty in Guyana has now come to Guyana with a full force.
There is, of course, now, the different views taken from different jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions have murder in the first degree and murder in the second degree and they are able to dispense with their cases in relation to the charges that have been laid. Some jurisdictions retain the death penalty in their books but they evolved systems that have jury hearing at the time of punishment - sentencing - so that the sentence fits the crime in a special trial like a voir dire into the nature of the crime. So we have to also temper our consideration in relation to what happens outside of Guyana because we cannot be an island by our self. “No man is an island”, that is what John Donne said. Therefore, we have to bring this to bear - all the facets of the debate. That is why I am saying again that I would like to propose a separate and distinct select committee to take the evidence and the hearing in this matter because it will be a compartmentalised way of viewing it. The lawyers, the Bar Association, the Judiciary, the ordinary person in the street will like to have their views heard while focussing on the issue of the death penalty and, as you know Sir, there is an atmosphere roaming, maybe prejudicial. People still are now of the view to hang them high.
While there is this enlightening intrusion of right to life, because of the failure of our society to contain with our criminal episodes and because of the nature of the criminal acts, public policy is once again coming around to a point where they want hanging to resume. [Mr. Nadir: That is what the people want.] But we have to hear them. These episodes have various phases. They are not unified. They come and go and that is what public policy is based on, the different nuances of the society at a particular time.
In relation to the decriminalisation of consensual, adult, same sex relations and discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons, I had alluded earlier to what came out of the constitutional reform process. There was a strong view that there should be non-discrimination against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation. This debate has now gone a step further where even I have seen in our own Alliance For Change, there are Members... I am a Christian and so I do not believe that my Christianity gives me a special morality. [An Hon. Member: Madras.] I am a Madras Christian if you want to say that. There is no contradiction – none at all! I embrace the belief of my parents who are Hindus and Madrases. I embrace their belief; I respect their belief and I feel energised sometimes. If they were alive, I would have told them how much their belief gave me strength. But I am a Christian by choice and I have faith and strength from my choice. That does not give me a right to pass judgement on every human being. It does not give me a special privilege to say that because I am different from someone else that I should pronounce on someone else’s nature, someone else’s character or a person’s orientation. Suffice to say that as Mr. Ramjattan has said during the Elections campaign, in the Garden there are many flowers. Ho Chi Minh once said in Vietnam after the War a million flowers will bloom. So too we have to allow our civilisation to bloom from the basis of who we are. We are not all the same and we should not expect that we should be the same. We are different and, therefore, any informed approach to a debate on the issue of sexual orientation or the broadened version, as I see it here, must start from an enlightenment with an open mind that we do and view things differently.
In the United States, one of the biggest social forces had been what they considered to be the gay community. Just as before one of the biggest social forces in the United States that brought about catalytic change in the society during the War in Vietnam were the Hippies, various subcultures develop. I go back to the United States that when the concept of “black is beautiful” came about with the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis epitomised that in the 1970s, it had brought to the fore a new concept of activism and change - force. Black power became a game changer in the United States and it pushed the agenda for reform and equality high up in the United States to the extent where today we have an Afro-American as the first Afro-American to be President of the United States.
These issues are not only going to be issues to decide whether in vulgar term we agree with the ones some of my friends would use. We are going to help to push the agenda for the transformation of Guyana forward if we take these issues seriously because the issues of gender rights, racial rights and economic rights are the issues that will make us a better country if we have the courage to deal with them passionately and honestly and not simply deal with them opportunistically and see how the wind is shifting - tilt to the pressure of countervailing influence because we want to suck up to some sections of the society, even backward sections, even regressive sections. We may suck up to these sections because we find either we have money coming from them, votes coming from them or some influence.
We, as legislators representing the nation, will have to forge an identity that is bigger than all the sectoral interest and the parochial interest and we have to be able to face these issues because they help to evolve our society and involve our society, and so I still close with the recommendation that we should have three distinct committees to take the evidence. I may say, Hon. Prime Minister – as I stand here I speak on a matter of conscience – that I support your motion, but I would ask that you consider an amendment that will create three instead of one committee.
Thank you very much. [Applause]
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