Thu | Aug 5, 2021

Ronald Sanders | Democracy too precious in CARICOM not to defend it abroad

Published:Saturday | June 19, 2021 | 12:06 AM
A motorcyclist rides past a truck billboard promoting President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, Nicaragua. In recent weeks, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s government has rounded up 13 opposition leaders, in
A motorcyclist rides past a truck billboard promoting President Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, in Managua, Nicaragua. In recent weeks, Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s government has rounded up 13 opposition leaders, including four presidential challengers for the November 7 elections. They face allegations ranging from money laundering to crimes against the state.
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
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More commonality was shown by CARICOM countries in a vote on Tuesday June 15 at the Organization of American States (OAS) than has been seen in recent times.

Eleven CARICOM countries joined 15 other member states of the OAS in adopting a resolution “expressing alarm at the recent deterioration of the political climate and human rights situation in Nicaragua” and condemning “the arrest, harassment and arbitrary restrictions placed on presidential candidates, political parties and independent media”. The resolution also urged the government of President Daniel Ortega to promote “transparent, free and fair elections in November”, including observation by international bodies.

In full transparency, I disclose that I chaired the June 15 meeting in my capacity as Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador and, currently, president of the Permanent Council of the OAS.

In joining this resolution, the 11 CARICOM countries were consistent in their position that there should be no interference in the internal affairs of states. However, no country can be a member of any organisation which proclaims adherence to the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections, and remain silent when these principles are discarded. It should be noted that, in 13 of the 14 independent CARICOM countries, these principles are fully respected, and when they were under severe threat in Guyana last year, CARICOM countries played a vital role in ensuring, particularly, that presidential and regional elections were not stolen.

Democracy, free and fair elections, a free press and the right of dissent are all vigorously upheld in the majority of CARICOM countries. Upholding and respecting these principles might be hard for parties in power to accept, especially if false charges and accusations are made against them. Nonetheless, opposition politicians are not locked up and the media is not silenced.

As an example of this, a Facebook posting (at: https://fb.watch/635WS4LYwv/) shows a live scene in Antigua of Prime Minister Gaston Browne and leader of one of the opposition parties, Harold Lovell, with supporters meeting in a street in a constituency while the prime minister was on a ‘walk about’. There were verbal exchanges between them, but there was not one armed soldier present, no building was burned, no citizen threatened, and no person charged or detained.

DEMOCRACY SAFEGUARDED

Dissent is defended in 13 of the 14 independent CARICOM countries because it is a fundamental right for which these societies fought through slavery, indentured labour and worker exploitation. Democracy and free and fair elections are safeguarded because they are valued by people as a peaceful means of changing governments with which the majority are dissatisfied. Because the people of these countries respect – and expect – these values in their homelands, their representatives cannot be silent spectators when they are violated elsewhere.

There is still one member state of CARICOM where democracy and the rule of law are being ignored, and in which transparent, free and fair presidential and legislative elections are in serious peril. Silence, so far, by CARICOM collectively on the destruction of democratic institutions in this member country disregards the Charter of Civil Society which was invoked in the Guyana situation last year.

Fascism, authoritarianism, and the sheer lust to retain power, despite the majority will, lurks dangerously everywhere – even in the United States which lays claim to being a bastion of democracy and the rule of law. That democracy was weakened by naked political ambition backed by vested interests and manifested by an organised assault on the US Congress and a bogus claim of stolen elections. Fortunately for the people of the US, other institutions of democracy such as the courts, the media, and the armed forces, remained faithful to their national obligations. But, the US is today wounded and weakened by these events.

Ponder, therefore, how smaller nations could suffer prolonged agony in trying to regain democracy when it is seized from their grasp.

CLEAR SIGNAL TO PRESIDENT ORTEGA

That is why 11 CARICOM delegations at the OAS, on June 15, opted to send a clear signal to President Ortega that they want him to act democratically to release persons who have been arbitrarily arrested and to stop onslaughts on the media.

The 11 CARICOM countries did not come to their common position without giving President Ortega’s government every chance to remedy conditions in Nicaragua. For example, Antigua and Barbuda and a few other CARICOM countries voted against previous resolutions aimed at Nicaragua. They did so to give President Ortega time to address grave charges raised by the Inter American and UN Commissions on Human Rights. These Commissions reported that the “human rights crisis has resulted in at least 328 deaths and some 2,000 injuries, as a result of action by state agents or armed civilians acting with their acquiescence and tolerance”.

The recent spate of arbitrary arrests of persons, of beatings while in prison, of denials of access to legal representation and needed medicines, with no effort to change these conditions, including no attempt to implement much-needed electoral reform, left the 11 CARICOM countries with no choice. As the ambassador of Barbados, Noel Lynch, said at the June 15 meeting, “the evolving circumstances in Nicaragua are sufficiently worrying to warrant a strong call from the OAS membership for adequate steps to be taken to ensure transparent, free and fair elections in Nicaragua”.

Sadly, when, as president of the OAS Permanent Council, I convened a meeting on Monday, June 14 to allow the representatives of Nicaragua an opportunity to state their view on the resolution, they opted not to show up.

Nicaragua may seem distant from the CARICOM area, but CARICOM must speak out to uphold democracy and the rule of law everywhere, or risk endangering these vital safeguards of freedom at home.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. For responses and previous commentaries, log on to www.sirronaldsanders.com