A publication documenting nine years of human rights recommendations (2005-2013) to Belize and outlining Belize’s commitment for action—such as putting in place measures it says would protect the rights of members of the LGBT community against discrimination and persecution—was launched Tuesday night, in commemoration of Human Rights Day 2013, at the Princess Hotel in Belize City.
Eamon Courtenay, SC, Belize Bar Association president, the keynote speaker for the event, said that society has to resolve and design appropriate solutions to what he called “trending issues.”
“How will we guarantee the rights of members of the LGBT community? Is the death penalty constitutional? Are persons on remand in prison for several years truly innocent until proven guilty? Are they being afforded a fair trial within a reasonable time? Can the state continue to compulsorily acquire private property without full compensation within a reasonable time? How will we give recognition to full property rights of the indigenous Maya, especially as their rights have been affirmed – not once but three times by the courts in Belize?” Courtenay probed.
He said that the document launched Tuesday night—20 years: Working for Your Rights – Human rights recommendations to Belize—has highlighted Belize’s achievements, as well as gaps which need to be addressed.
He stressed that Belize’s judiciary remains underfunded and understaffed, resulting in the denial of justice to persons on remand for extensive periods.
“A recent study (yet unpublished) on the Kolbe facility reveals some startling details: There are interminable delays of persons on remand awaiting trial – in one case for as long as seven years. Thirty-seven percent of prisoners are awaiting trial – not yet sentenced. Of the 183 foreign inmates, 71 are awaiting deportation hearings. There are six persons detained in Kolbe who have been found to be insane or deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. In the most glaring and egregious case, a person stood trial for manslaughter in 1976 – a different century and a different decade – at age 20. He is held in a cell of his own, in a unit housing inmates with mental health conditions. He was found to be insane and has been kept in prison ever since. Thirty-seven years,” Courtenay detailed.
He noted that three years ago, there was a Chief Justice and 8 other Supreme Court judges, and yet they were unable to cope with a backlog of cases; today, through promotion and attrition, we have only the Chief Justice and 6 other judges, he added. The situation, said Courtenay, demands urgent attention.
He also noted that, “Three years ago five judges were hearing civil cases, including constitutional claims. Today, there are only three.”
The situation undermines the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution; justice delayed is justice denied, Courtenay stated.
Human Rights Day 2013 coincides with a week of mourning for former South Africa president, who was one of the lead international lobbyists for human rights protection, Nelson Mandela.
Courtenay ended his remarks with a quote from Mandela’s speech at the opening of the South African parliament in Cape Town on May 25, 1994: “Our single most important challenge is therefore to help a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual…”
Antoinette Moore, SC, of the Human Rights Commission of Belize, said the launch of the Belize publication also coincides with the 26th anniversary of their office in Belize.
She agreed with many of the concerns Courtenay raised. She told Amandala, in a short interview after the launch that the issues in question—the LGBT issue, the Maya land rights issue, lengthy remand terms—would more than likely have to be resolved through the courts.
“I understand there is also a person who’s waited five; I personally have a client who has waited almost three – and that is obviously too long. I don’t know that the system is prepared to set deadlines and say this long and no longer, when you are remanded and cannot get bail, either you’re gonna be eligible for bail or retrial is going to happen,” Moore said.
She told us that she is particularly concerned about inmates who have waited very long periods of time, and “in a sense are growing old in the prison waiting for a trial.”
Moore said that some of the issues can be resolved through the courts and some administratively.
While tonight’s presentations raised the profile of the plight of remanded inmates, there is a wider scope of persons whose issues are featured in the human rights publication.
Ivan Yerovi, UNICEF Rep in Belize, said that, “While the past 20 years have seen extraordinary progress, we should never forget that there have been those who have been left behind: children, migrants, older persons, religious and ethnic minorities, people persecuted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity – to name just a few.”
“Our work would not be done until the promise of the Vienna Convention is made real for everybody – no exceptions, no excuses,” said Yerovi.
Lionel Arzu, Ombudsman of Belize said, “We all still have a lot to accomplish and in order for us to make that significant leap of progress, we must finally come together as a family and make the relevant compromises and accessions towards our greater goal. Our approach to a better Belize must be a most humane and responsible one, considering every sector of our society. We must realize the decisions we make at this stage can either make or break us.”
The human rights publication includes recommendations made to Belize by the countries who attended the 17th Session of the Human Rights Council Working Group’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), held in Geneva, Switzerland, under the umbrella of the United Nations’ Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, in October.
Mistress of Ceremony, Ann Marie Williams, Executive Director of the National Women’s Commission, read snippets from the Belize report, which was distributed after Tuesday night’s launch.
Among the recommendations which she said Belize had accepted are those from Brazil and the USA, made at the 2013 Universal Periodic Review.
Specifically, those recommendations, respectively, call on Belize to “take all necessary measures to guarantee the human rights of LGBT individuals and that they do not face persecution of any kind,” (Brazil) and to “provide state authorities, including law enforcement and judicial officials, with human rights training, for the protection of women and members of minority groups such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons” (United States of America).
Carla Covarrubias of the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for Central America, based in Panama, said that the goal is to bring the issues from committees far away home to the capitals where decisions are taken and where changes need to be implemented.
She said that as recommendations continue to come to Belize, they hope to be able to update the document – at least online.
“As we celebrate today, we also recognize the efforts of Belize and congratulate the state and the people on completing its second Universal Periodic Review. We note that of the 122 recommendations issued, 33 were initially accepted, with others taken for further consideration. We urge Belize to see these recommendations as an opportunity to enhance national dialogue and discourse on human rights and ultimately enhance living standards,” said Ricardo Valent, UN Resident Coordinator.