Focus | It is not the demand that matters, it’s the substance of the issue
When I was a member of Parliament, a gentleman from my Fort Charlotte constituency, a self-proclaimed supporter, approached me to ask if I could stand a $25,000 bail for his son who had been arrested. When I told him that I could not, he was angry and offended.
We never connected with each other again. When that gentleman approached me with his request, I did not get angry, was not shocked or even alarmed. He has a right to ask for what he needed or wanted. While I might never make such a request of someone, that did not mean that he and others ought not to because as the saying goes, “He who feels it, knows it.”
What I do know is that a person’s right to ask, perhaps even demand of me something, has nothing to do with my obligation to do as they ask. Either I can or cannot do what they ask; or I will or won’t do what they ask. Now my decision to do or not do came with some consequences. In the example I cited, it came with the possible loss of political support ,or, at the very least, the loss of a good relationship between me and that constituent. Given the nature of the situation, the cost of that loss was something I was willing to bear.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently made certain comments about The Bahamas’ immigration practices. Following upon petitions made by Fred Smith’s Rights Bahamas group, IACHR thinks our treatment of migrants and so-called “stateless people” is not in keeping with international best practices, perhaps even international law. It thinks we should make changes. There are some Bahamians who have been alarmed. They seem offended that such demands are being made on us by this outside entity. IACHR joins a long list of alphabet groups that Bahamians think are infringing on their sovereignty. But are they?
The IACHR is one of the bodies that make up the Inter-American system established by the Organization of American States. It was founded in 1959 “to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere and to serve as a consultative organ of the OAS in these matters”.
If, therefore, it is agitating, even demanding, changes that it think will promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere, to which we belong, then it is doing that which it was established to do.
As did the man in my constituency, it has a right to ask or demand whatever it wishes. Those asks or demands are not the issue. The issue is whether or not what is being asked or demanded makes sense, both for us and the global community to which we belong. Is it sensible to treat migrants in a way that represents the best in human dignity and comportment? Is it right to provide for the most seamless and prudent treatment of so-called “stateless” residents of The Bahamas? If we think so, then the debate should not be about the right of IACHR to ask or demand, but about what is to be done to do right by what it asks or demands. If we do not think so, then there is no debate. We simply carry on.
We live in a world with others. As much as we may not like it, our conduct in the world is examined by others and commented upon by others. Some of those others, where they can, may even seek to influence our behavior. That is not only their right. It is fact about which we can do little.
We had occasions when we observed others’ conduct in the world and not only commented upon it, but were instrumental in affecting that behavior. When apartheid was in full bloom and Nelson Mandela was in prison, The Bahamas lifted its voice in holy opposition to the deeds of the South African government. Furthermore, the former prime minister of The Bahamas, the late Lynden Oscar Pindling, used the occasion of the 8th meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Nassau, Bahamas in 1985 to put the issue of apartheid front and center, and it had an impact.
So significant was the impact that the Nassau Accord was signed calling on the government of South Africa to dismantle apartheid, and a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group was appointed to investigate the issue. Yes, we thought that based on moral authority we should speak up about something in the country of other people. This is called global citizenship and participation in the global community. As long as we are in this world, we may be called to act this way and others will as well.
So let the IACHR do its job. Let Fred Smith and Rights Bahamas pursue their mission. And let all the world take note. What is left for us to now do is examine our principles, judge our deeds and ask whether we are doing what is right in the eyes of a non-partisan, dispassionate, loving, caring, just and lawful God of conscience, whoever we believe him or her to be.
We dare not say we are right before our own eyes, for “all the ways of a man are right in his own eyes”, says the book of Wisdom. We need a judge higher than ourselves, above ourselves, and better than ourselves. If we think we are doing right by that judge, then we carry on. If not, then we should adjust and do the right thing. So let it be written, so let it be done.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.