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Ethnic Relations Commission
66 Peter Rose & Anira Streets, Queenstown, Georgetown, Guyana
Tel. +592-231-6479, 231-6473,
231-6281, 231-6265
Fax: +592-231-6246

August 21, 2007

PRESS RELEASE

ETHNIC RELATIONS COMMISSION PRESS STATEMENT

Constituency Meetings 2007

The Ethnic Relations Commission thanks the media for responding favourably to its invitation to this Press Briefing.

Over the past week the Commission has been engaged in conducting its annual constituency meetings with the seven sectors represented on the ERC and other groups the Commission worked with during its tenure.  The ERC meets with its constituencies on a yearly basis to report on its work and solicit feedback aimed at improving its performance.

Below is an outline of the various constituency meetings held last week:

Monday August 13   13:00hrs 
16:00hrs

NGOs and Citizens Organizations
Women Constituency

Tuesday August 14 10:00hrs
14:00hrs
Muslim Religion
Labour Constituency
Wednesday August 15 10:00hrs
16:00hrs
Hindu Religion
Guyana Council of Churches
Thursday August 16 10:00hrs
16:00hrs
Other Christian Bodies
Other Religious Bodies
Friday August 17 10:00hrs
14:00hrs
Private Sector Constituency
Youth Constituency

CITIZENS ORGANIZATIONS
Formulation of the other Commissions to comprise the ERC paramount

One of the central focuses of the meeting was for representatives to exchange ideas and suggest recommendations on the way forward for the ERC, in the light of the failed motion, tabled in the National Assembly on May 10, 2007 for consensual mechanism to be activated to allow for new terms of Commissioners. In this regard, participants sought to inquire whether the Commission will be governed by an Interim Management Committee. In response, the Chairman stated that at the last sitting of the National Assembly, a motion was adopted for the current Commissioners to continue to function, until a recommendation on the way forward is made by His Excellency President Bharrat Jagdeo.

Representatives felt that the work of the ERC should continue. However, some of the African Cultural Groups expressed concerns that the National Assembly considered them as being apart of the Christian Constituency of the ERC, when they do not see themselves as Christians. Representation was made on behalf of the African Cultural Groups to be considered as a separate constituency. The Chairman responded that the ERC was never required to recommend any group to form a particular constituency. However, he advised that they lobby the National Assembly for the Group to be one of the bodies to be included on the list of entities to elect representatives to form the new Commission.

The Chairman also noted that the efforts should be made to lobby for the establishment of the four Rights Commissions that should comprise the ERC. He said that a number of complaints which the ERC received over the last three years did not fall within its mandate but that of the other Commissions, which should have already been constituted.

WOMEN’S CONSTITUENCY
When the ERC met with its Women Constituency, the importance of the other Human Rights Commission was reiterated as some representatives felt that the ERC did not address the issue of discrimination against persons of different sexual orientation.  The issue of domestic violence was also raised in the meeting as something that the ERC should examine; a matter for the Women and Gender Equality Commission.

The Women’s Constituency noted that the lobbying for the formulation of the other Rights Commission which includes the Women and Gender Equality Commission should be done by the ERC since many of the complaints it receives should be handled by those commissions. The Chairman noted that supportive lobby in this regard may propel the constitutional process of their enactments.

MUSLIM CONSTITUENCY
Muslims peeved about demonization based on foreign perceptions
- Insufficient consideration for Friday prayers another concern

The Muslim Community told the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) that it is the most discriminated and marginalized group because of negative foreign perceptions of Muslims, at a Constituency Meeting held recently.

The representatives at the meeting stated that the global image of Muslims as terrorists, since 9/11, has been superimposed on Guyana and as a result they are looked upon with suspicion. The charges against one Guyanese and two Trinidadian Muslims for allegedly plotting to bomb the John F. Kennedy International Airport have only fueled the already volatile situation of bundling all Muslims as terrorists or evil persons, they said.

Highlighting a recent instance which demonstrates how Muslims in Guyana are perceived negatively, one representative revealed that he was in the process of teaching the principles and doctrines of Islam to a non-Muslim who abruptly severed the interaction when the news of the JFK plot came into the public domain.
The Group noted that they were concerned about the international image of Muslims and Islam, but moreso about the distrust by fellow Guyanese. The representatives stated that suspicions of Muslims in Guyana have become so evident that organizations and individuals have been documented and as a result, the freedom they once enjoyed as citizens are severely curtailed. Muslims, who go to receive remittances, have to undergo security checks and clearance which other groups do not experience. Further, missionaries from the Middle East and other foreign states who have been invited into the country are subjected to rigorous scrutiny before they are given clearance, the representatives said.

According to the Group, even the media have been drafted into what was described as ‘this paranoia’ of demonizing Muslims since the printing press disseminates views which depredates Muslims and their faith in newspaper letter column. The representatives implored news editors to be sensitive and considerate to the feelings of the Muslims community when they receive such disparaging letters.

Meanwhile, the group was also concerned about the lack of consideration by certain public sector agencies for Muslims who have to attend Friday prayers. In several of these agencies, one of which was named, the Group said Muslim employees who request time off to pray, are told that they will not be paid for the hours spent away from work. The ERC Chairman told the representatives that the Commission will facilitate discussion with organizations that limit or prohibit Muslims from practicing their religious customs.

LABOUR CONSTITUENCY
The Labour Constituency expressed concerns about equal access to employment and other economic opportunities in Guyana. Inquiries were made about the capacity of the Commission to regulate the quota of employment to the various ethnic groups or to lobby for a constitutional mechanism to stipulate parity of employment and economic opportunities.

ERC Chairman pointed out that the Commission has never called for parity in employment distribution or other resources. He said that systems of awarding these should be open and fair to all. He also stated that considerations of professionalism and competence must be paramount to parity of distribution of any goods, services or resources among the various groups.

HINDU CONSTITUENCY
ERC engages Hindu Constituency in review of its work

The Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) reported to its Hindu Community its work programmes from conceptualization to present on Wednesday last, at a Constituency Meeting. 

Speaking at the opening of the meeting Chairman of the ERC, Bishop Juan Edghill told the representatives that very early in its life, the Commission recognized that racism is a learnt behavior and therefore its public education and awareness programme needed to be specifically designed to effect behavioural changes in the ways ethnic groups interacted with each other.

He noted that through partnership and assistance from the international community, the Commission embarked on its National Film Festival, a programme which uses films on themes pertaining to racial harmony and conflict resolution, to stimulate discussion among young people and adults. Among the other public education programmes the Chairman highlighted are: Debating, Poster and Essay Competitions, which give young people an avenue to express their perceptions on racial harmony, artistically and intellectually. The Commission’s Regional Visits, in which the ERC interfaces with Regional Executives and civil society in a more interpersonal manner, is an integral part of the ERC sensitization programme, the Chairman added. 

In recognition of the divisiveness which underscores relations among religious dominations and political parties, the ERC with assistance of the United Nations Social Cohesion Programme, embarked on a series of workshops to allow these groups to get together in an amicable atmosphere for a number of Conflict Transformation Workshops, the ERC Chairman said. One of the high points of this programme, he noted, was that leaders of political parties were so inspired and motivated at what took place that they felt it needed to be taken to a wider audience, and thus the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) was conceptualized.

The Chairman relayed that the MSF, which saw the convening of 12 pilot meetings, 142 neighbourhood consultations throughout the ten Administrative Regions and 10 Regional Conferences, was one the definitive factors that contributed to the peaceful elections in August 2006. He stated that the ERC also had a Pre and Post Elections Prevention of Violence Campaign, in preparation for the elections. The Commission, he said, consulted with the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), Elections Advisory Bureau (EAB) the security forces and other stakeholders to explore ideas for peaceful elections. The Chairman stated that the ideas which came forward were implemented by a number of other agencies, all of which contributed to the calm atmosphere that pervaded before, during and after the elections.

The MSF process has not been concluded with the completion of the National Conversation, the ERC Chairman advised. He said it is continuing through the functioning of the Working Group selected from the MSF National Conversation held in November 2006. That Working Group has been meeting on a quarterly basis to explore and exchange ideas for a system of governance which will ensure ethnic security in Guyana and was trained by Ms. Bonita Harris, a USAID/GDCCR Consultant, on the steps and skills needed to lobby for changes and recommendations, suggested throughout the MSF process, he revealed.

Recapping aspects of the ERC’s 2006 work programme, the Chairman noted that one of the significant tasks the Commission undertook was the commissioning of research consultancies in five areas:

  1. The award of academic scholarships
  2. Public procurement in Guyana as it relates to fairness and openness
  3. An assessment of whether there is any discrimination in the award and distribution of economic opportunities in Guyana.
  4. Employment practices in the Public and Private Sectors and Trade Unions.
  5. Equitable Land Distribution

He noted that in various discourse in the media and other public places, persons spoke to issues of equal access to opportunities and resources based on perceptions. The ERC sought to gather scientific data so that recommendations for changes can be made from a factual premise. The Chairman said that these findings can be the subject of debates and discussions at various levels in civil society.  

The Hindu Constituency agreed that the ERC had performed creditably, specifically in assisting to ensure that the 2006 Elections was free from fear and intimidation. It recommended that the Commission should consider the establishment of Regional Ethnic Relations Committees to facilitate a wider reach of its work. They felt that every effort should be made to reconstitute the governing body of the ERC when the present Commissioners’ terms have come to an end, but recommended that in the interim, the ‘status quo’ should remain.

 CHRISTIAN CONSTITUENCY
Christian Constituency applauds ERC Work
- Concerned about constitutional deadlock

“The work of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) has been outstanding…the entire Guyanese society has been the beneficiary of its commendable leadership.” This view was expressed by the representative of the Guyana Anglican Church when the ERC conducted a meeting with the Guyana Council of Churches and Other Christian Bodies, recently.

The Constituency noted that the work of the Commission, especially during last year’s General Elections has shown that the ERC is a relevant body. “This Commission is the first of its kind in Guyana and it has created a good first impression,” the Anglican Church representative stated.

Speaking about the imminent completion of the term of office of ERC Commissioners, the Christian Constituency noted the constitutional mechanism to extend the life of the Commission or to select new Commissioners should not be in limbo, given the importance and necessity of the work of the ERC. Enquiries were made about whether the parties against the motion for the constitutional process for a new term of the Commission can be engaged in some form of dialogue. In response, Chairman of the ERC Bishop Juan Edghill said that the constitutional process must be allowed to function without political interference.

He stated that once ERC Commissioners begin to engage parliamentary representatives from any political party, whether government or opposition, their independence may be comprised. “There needs to be security of tenure for the Commission and it must be free from political manipulation,” the Chairman stated.
Meanwhile, in a separate meeting, Other Christian Bodies which include the Guyana Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, Assemblies of God Churches in Guyana, Georgetown Ministers Fellowship, Church of Christ and other Pentecostal Churches reiterated the call for some administrative mechanism to ensure that the ERC continues to function until the constitutional process takes effect.

They noted that the work of the ERC, particularly in the area of research into equal educational, employment and economic opportunities is pertinent to addressing the concerns expressed by Guyanese, of ethnic discrimination at various levels. ERC Chairman had revealed earlier that from the research the ERC conducted in areas of equal opportunities, there were no patterns of institutionalized racism or a central policy which promotes it. 

One representative stated that the racial preference, which was described as a natural inclination to gravitate to one’s own social circle, and racial discrimination, can sometimes become blurred. What someone may perceive as racial discrimination, the representative said, may be a case of racial preference. However, it was agreed that some mechanism should be put in place to ensure that there is parity in the distribution of resources among the citizenry.

The Commission also met with Other Religious Bodies to review its work from conceptualization to present. This constituency sought to move a written motion which expresses its support for the reconstitution of the Commission.

PRIVATE SECTOR CONSTITUENCY
PSC supports continuation of the ERC
The Private Sector Commission (PSC) has expressed its solidarity for the work of the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) at a Constituency Meeting held Friday last.
Speaking at the meeting about the continuation of the ERC in light of the failed motion to reconstitute the Commission, Executive Director of the PSC, Mr. Bal Persaud, said, “the ERC has made a tremendous impact in our society…it is incumbent on the Private Sector Commission to  make representation on behalf of the ERC for its continuation.”

Mr. Persaud stated that the PSC had identified three issues which it feels needed to be addressed to create good conditions in Guyana for investments, namely, social cohesion, political stability, and crime. He noted that the PSC had been breathing a sigh of relief, particularly after the 2006 elections and were optimistic that social cohesion was being realised through the efforts of the ERC. “We are at a precipice of losing the ground that we gained,” he said, referring to the possibility of a constitutional crisis of the ERC.

Other representatives sought to move a motion noting that they were satisfied with the functioning of the ERC and supported the reconstitution of the Commission.

YOUTH CONSTITUENCY
Youth Constituency expresses distinct displeasure with lawmakers
“Who is responsible for explaining the reason for the failure of the motion? Why was the list not accepted?” These were some of the questions posed by the Youth when they met for a Constituency Meeting at the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC), Friday last.

The youth representatives were puzzled that the motion tabled in the National Assembly on May 10, 2007 for the consensual mechanism to be activated to allow for a new term for Commissioners, did not achieve the two thirds majority. This constituency noted that the Commission has brought about “a balance” in the manner in which the races relate to each other, and the basis on which jobs and other opportunities are awarded. “There is need for an ERC,” the youth representatives stated emphatically.

Commenting on the constitutional deadlock and the motion passed at Parliament’s last sitting for the President to recommend what should be the way forward for the Commission, the Youth Constituency said, “the constitutional mechanism should have proceeded without the President having to intervene.”

“Does Parliament understand that the ERC is a permanent constitutional body and its longevity should be ensured…free from political manipulation?”  one representative asked. Frustrated at what she saw was an implausible reason for parliament’s stalemate as it relates to the reconstitution of the ERC, the youth vented, “it is not surprising that young people are leaving and we have no one to blame but the politicians.”

“Without an ERC”, she said, “we are the ones who will suffer the most.”

Chairman of the ERC commended the young people for the way they conducted themselves during the 2006 General Elections. He noted that they acted responsibly by refusing to participate in acts of violence and racial incitement.

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