The Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee has indicated broad support for the Government’s proposed Bill of Rights, but they think ultimate responsibility for correcting human rights breaches should lie with the courts and not members of the Legislative Assembly.
Under the People’s Progressive Movement’s constitutional modernisation proposals, courts would be able to make a declaration if a piece of local legislation breached rights contained in the constitutional Bill of Rights.
That declaration should then cause the Legislative Assembly to enact or alter laws to bring them into line with the Bill of Rights, but it could not force them to.
‘There is concern amongst the HRC here that throwing these issues back to the legislature could make them grow, evolve – become highly politically and contentious issues,’ said Vaughan Carter, the HRC’s deputy chair at a meeting on human rights in South Sound Thursday night.
‘In a small legislature that has a small number of representatives, they could become massive election issues, in essence … giving the particular issue greater significance than they had initially.’
Instead, the HRC wants any new constitution to allow courts to strike down domestic legislation that conflicts with fundamental rights contained in the Bill of Rights.
Thursday’s meeting – the third in a series of HRC meetings on human rights – comes amid growing public concern with the implications a Bill of Rights could have in the Cayman Islands.
That concern has been driven partly by clergy members in Cayman, and the opposition United Democratic Party, who have claimed that a Bill of Rights would have implications for the way faith is practiced in churches and schools in the Cayman Islands.
Referring to the growing controversy, Mr. Carter said a Bill of Rights in the Cayman Islands is not inconsistent with maintaining the island’s traditionally Christian heritage.
‘Human rights principles and the inclusion of rights of religion for all people do not prohibit the recognition of Christmas, the [right for schools to hold] nativity plays or for aspects of Christianity to happen in schools,’ he said.
While the US constitution, which establishes a fundamental separation of church and state, has caused such issues to become contentious there, Mr. Carter said no such thing was one the table in the Cayman Islands. ‘The HRC believes that that is somewhat of a misnomer,’ he said.
Mr Carter also rejected the suggestion that human rights are a euro-centric concept that are being imposed on the Cayman Islands as a result of its constitutional link with the United Kingdom and the UK’s connection with Europe.
He went on to outline a series of events in Caymanian history where fundamental rights have been asserted and secured, beginning with the establishment of local democracy in 1831 at Pedro St. James. This, he said, was just one example of people in Cayman securing rights that would not be enshrined in international human rights conventions until many years later.
‘If the argument is that rights are being imposed from some sort of international law, well they were being asserted by people in the Cayman Islands many years before they managed to find their way into some form of international organisation,’ he said.
Other examples given by Mr. Carter included when, in 1912, over 350 parents in Cayman campaigned for better rights to education and, in 1957, when 358 women from throughout the islands lobbied for the right of women to vote and stand in public elections.
‘Having acknowledged that we are a society that respects rights and individual liberties, there is a firm belief that this situation could be improved,’ Mr Carter said.
Referring to the issue of gay marriage, which has repeatedly been dragged into discussion over a Bill of Rights, Mr. Carter said the HRC believes the rights of all people ought to be respected and recognised equally. But he said it is for individual religions to determine how they define marriage.
In that light, it would be preferable for the constitution not to impose any definition of marriage, he said.
The controversy over Christianity and human rights on Thursday forced the PPM Government to cancel two public meeting on the proposed constitutional changes that had been scheduled for this week, so they can instead hold a special meeting on the relationship between human rights and the island’s value system.
The meeting will be led by the PPM’s chief constitutional advisor, Professor Jeffery Jowell QC, and will give people a platform to voice their concerns and get answers from the experts, Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said Thursday.
Thursday’s HRC meeting was scheduled to be the last in the series, but with period for public debate on the Government’s constitutional proposals looking like it will continue longer than was first planned, HRC members said Thursday they will consider taking their human rights forum on the road in coming months, to include other districts and the Sister Islands.
The HRC is expected to release its position statement on the Government’s Bill of Rights proposals this week.