Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-AMERICAS: Trinidad and Tobago Stands Up to OAS

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jun 4 1998 (IPS) - Trinidad and Tobago withheld its approval of the annual report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in response to the Commission’s decision to order that five stays of execution be issued.

The Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Ralph Maraj, said at the close of the three-day General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in Caracas Wednesday that the delay imposed on the executions ran counter to the laws of his country.

On May 26, Trinidad and Tobago denounced the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, as part of its withdrawal from supranational obligations that have hindered the application of a five-year limit on executions following conviction.

Maraj did not block approval of the report released by the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Justice, which announces that appeals by death row prisoners in Trinidad and Tobago based on alleged irregularities in their cases would be heard.

But he did express reservations regarding the approval, and said death row prisoners were “abusing” their right to take recourse to human rights bodies, and were distorting the system of international justice.

Maraj received expressions of solidarity from Jamaica, which withdrew from the Optional Protocol on the death penalty of the United Nations Convention on Human Rights in January.

Jamaica’s withdrawal took effect after the Geneva-based UN Committee on Human Rights ordered stays of execution for several prisoners in Jamaica in October.

A majority of the delegations to this week’s OAS General Assembly expressed concern over the possibility that the death penalty issue would lead a number of Caribbean nations to renounce the international standards which bind the 34 OAS member states to respect human rights.

The government of Barbados also announced that it was considering denouncing the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. But Foreign Minister Billie Miller did not comment on the matter in Caracas.

The chairman of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Venezuela’s Carlos Ayala, told IPS that Trinidad and Tobago’s denunciation of the Convention and Maraj’s position were “a serious setback” to the process of strengthening the inter- American system designed to promote human rights.

Ayala said that hearing petitions for the review of legal proceedings in Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean countries that maintain the death penalty “is a right of the Commission on Human Rights based on the Convention and its statutes.”

During a session of seven independent jurists also held in Caracas, the Commission on Human Rights ruled on May 8 that the government of Basdeo Panday was to suspend the execution of five prisoners while the Inter-American Court reviewed alleged faults in the sentences.

The deputy chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, U.S. national Robert Goldman, said Trinidad and Tobago’s denunciation would take effect a year from now in accordance with the Convention’s statutes. But, he added, that did not mean the country would be exonerated from the Commission’s judgments, which bind OAS member states.

Goldman also pointed out that international law clearly establishes that supranational standards take precedence over national laws, and that states cannot enact legislation that runs counter to international treaties that they have signed of their own free will.

Ayala and Goldman met with Maraj and other Caribbean delegates to “curb the tendency” to ignore the rights of death row inmates in violation of the OAS charter.

The crisis between Caribbean nations – most of which continue to apply the death penalty – and international human rights bodies originally arose from a deadline imposed by the British Privy Council – the Commonwealth’s top legal authority – which, in a number of judgments including the landmark Pratt and Morgan appeal, described inordinate delays in carrying out the death sentence as cruel and inhumane.

Several Caribbean nations thus set deadlines for appeals of death sentences, and ruled that such sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment if the inmates were not executed within five years of conviction.

But when it denounced the UN Optional Protocol on the death penalty, Jamaica argued that petitions filed by death row prisoners to international bodies were causing overcrowding on death row.

Maraj told this week’s OAS General Assembly that death row inmates were “abusing” recourse to international entities, and that once their petition was turned down by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they turned to the UN Committee on Human Rights.

Human rights groups which acted as observers at the General Assembly sharply criticised Port of Spain’s position, and urged the government of Basdeo Panday to reconsider its decision to denounce the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.

While the Convention seeks to abolish the death penalty, it admits capital punishment in nations which applied it prior to ratification of the Convention.

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