Port of Spain day 3

Monday, 23 November 2009:

Readers may be wondering what I am doing in Trinidad and Tobago. I am attending two conferences back to back. The first one, which started today, is the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF), which is the civil society meeting held just in advance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit (CHOGM) planned for later this week.

The purpose of the CPF is to bring together civil society activists from around the Commonwealth, to draw up a list of priority issues and suggestions which will be handed to the 53 Commonwealth leaders when they meet.

There are about 500 participants registered for the CPF, from various countries of the grouping, from Belize to Botswana, India to Australia. Naturally, 500 is too large a number to hold any meaningful discussions, and our interests vary widely. So the CPF is divided into eight parallel streams (called ‘Assemblies’), meeting in different rooms. The Assembly I signed up for is Human Rights. Other Assemblies include Financial Crisis and Economic Development, Deepening Democracy and Governance, Environment and Climate Change, Health, etc.

This morning was the first session, with some speechmaking. In the afternoon, we broke into regional groups and an interactive format, with calls for suggestions from the floor. Ending up as the rapporteur for the Asian countries, I raised a number of issues which our region want included in the outcome statement for the leaders:

  • Freedom of expression; freedom of the press – review laws that restrict them
  • Freedom of association, including the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively – free up the laws and regulations
  • Freedom of assembly – the right to stage protests to bring grievances to public notice
  • More professional and citizen-friendly policing – purge corruption, abuse of power and the overly-deferential (to political masters) behaviour of police forces
  • Better access to justice – speedy justice, less deferential judiciary
  • Remove repressive laws – on above freedoms, and on detention without trial

And of course,

  • Equal rights for and non-discrimination laws that include gay, lesbian, bisexual and trasngendered persons.

Other regions contributed slightly different ideas. The African delegates seemed more focussed on land rights and environmental damage, as well as access to education and health. The Caribbean delegates spoke about equal rights for the disabled. From somewhere came a call for a ban on the death penalty – something I agree with but forgot to raise.

All regions raised the issue of gay equality. This was no accident though. A strong gay caucus was organised for the CPF, comprising gay activists from 12 countries. Thus, we were distributed across all the regional sub-discussions. Now, the next step (for tomorrow) is to get at least one of us onto the drafting committee, so that the point about gay equality is not diluted or left out of the final statement.

* * * * *

At the start of the conference today, I found myself sitting next to a local delegate, from Trinidad. We introduced ourselves to each other. She was from an Islamic women’s group, and from what I discovered out of three or four follow-up questions, they work with disadvantaged women on empowerment and livelihood issues.

“And where are you from?” she asked me.

“Singapore,” I said.

“And your group?”

“It’s called People Like Us. We’re a gay and lesbian advocacy group.”

She had nothing to say. No follow-up questions. In fact, I sensed that she shifted a centimetre or two away from me.

* * * * *

Most suggestions from the floor – about civil rights, access of education, justice – were nothing new. It’s just that many countries in the Commonwealth, Singapore included, observe these concepts more in the breach than to the letter. That’s why demands had to be repeated.

There was however, one suggestion from the floor that made people sit up. A woman rose to say she wanted the rights of the unborn child to be included  among the human rights concerns. The language – ‘rights of the unborn child’ – tells you where she was coming from: the same people who speak about ‘alternative lifestyles’ being an abomination against the (Christian) god.

While it is true that the question of abortion is not cut and dried, she betrayed herself by going hyperbolic, about how outrageous things have become: “abortions of babies even at eight or nine months!” Was she serious? Babies are able to survive when delivered at eight or nine months.

And what about the right of a woman to control her own body?

Here we go again. We’ve got faith groups to deal with.

3 Responses to “Port of Spain day 3”


  1. 1 rajanr 7 December 2009 at 01:59

    On abortion, late-term abortions is a big issue in the United States – it is permissible right up to birth under Doe v Bolton, requiring some health justification (defined liberally in Doe). While such abortions in the 8-9 month is rare (IIRC, less than 0.2%), the gruesome, unjustified nature obviously pushes late-term abortions into a pro-life focal point. Especially with the recently-banned, primary method of late-term abortion – intact dilation and extraction (or partial birth abortion).

    But beyond the point of late term abortions – “The language – ‘rights of the unborn child’ – tells you where she was coming from: the same people who speak about ‘alternative lifestyles’ being an abomination against the (Christian) god.”

    1. You’re assuming that only religious conservatives care about the “rights of the unborn”. It is the primary philosophical argument against abortion – used by just about every pro-lifer, atheist, Christian, Muslim, otherwise.

    2. You’re assuming just because the majority of pro-lifers are conservative Christians, the majority of whom are anti-gay (or at least not pro-gay), that hence their arguments or cause is flawed. It’s call ad hominem.

    3. You brought up bodily autonomy and ownership in relation to abortion – but rights aren’t invalidated just because there is a separate, potentially contradictory right. All rights have the potential of conflict with another, or even within the same right. It does not invalidate arguments for the right of fetuses.

  2. 2 Toon 16 December 2009 at 03:16

    @rajanr

    You show your manifest ignorance in assuming that all abortions necessarily involve that of living, viable fetuses and that such abortions are therefore necessarily “gruesome” and “unjustified”, but perhaps you are also unaware that the reason for the low statistic of 0.2% is that late-term abortions are necessitated by the fact that the fetuses are by then non-viable due to congenital defects. And just in case you argue that such defects could have been detected sooner, do be aware that congenital defects may not always manifest during the early terms and may be undetectable until the fetus has reached a certain point of development.

    Furthermore,

    1. Unless you happen to have just come out of a well, it is well-established that the pro-life movement is largely organised around religious lines, and conservative ones at that. True enough, it may appear fallacious,

    2. You’re assuming that because the writer is gay, therefore his arguments against abortion are necessarily motivated by a bias and have no merit. And that’s actually not called ad hominem, but reductio ad Hitlerum.

    3. Neither does the presence of the rights of the unborn invalidate arguments for the rights of a woman to control her own body. Furthermore, you are making an invalid assumption, there is nothing wrong with the fundamental concept of the “rights of the unborn”, and you ignorantly assume the writer to be arguing against your beliefs. Rather it is how the concept has been hijacked by religious conservatives to steamroller over every other right in their narrow-minded pursuit of imposing their personal doctrines on the society at large.

    • 3 rajanr 16 December 2009 at 12:58

      @Toon

      On congenital defects: it is permissible to kill a child with, say, down syndrome immediately after birth? If not, why is it then permissible immediately before birth? Congenital diseases do not reduce the viability of fetuses. In any case, it is only the United States, the epicentre of the abortion debate, where the requirements for late-term abortion is lax. My argument here is that the earlier assertion, “Babies are able to survive when delivered at eight or nine months.”

      1. I never denied that the pro-life movement was organized around largely religious lines. But that is not ground to ignore or discount their non-religious arguments, or assume all pro-lifers are “the same people who speak about ‘alternative lifestyles’ being an abomination against the (Christian) god” (I’m a pro-lifer, for example, who holds that gays should not only be allowed to get married, but have equal adoption and childrearing rights).

      Religious movements have previously coincided with civil rights movement. The abolitionist campaign in Britain was led by the evangelical arm of the Church of England. The Polish Solidarity movement was led by the Catholic Church, as was the People Power movement in the Philippines. Religious movements do not discount the secular cause they are fighting for – slavery, for example, isn’t permissible because those who want to free them are evangelical Anglicans.

      2. He said, “The language – ‘rights of the unborn child’ – tells you where she was coming from: the same people who speak about ‘alternative lifestyles’ being an abomination against the (Christian) god.” Considering much of the post was on gay rights, I don’t see how that isn’t a valid assumption.

      3. “Rather it is how the concept has been hijacked by religious conservatives to steamroller over every other right in their narrow-minded pursuit of imposing their personal doctrines on the society at large.” – that was what I was arguing against. The assumption that the woman was a “religious conservative” whose pursuit for the rights of the unborn is a “narrow-minded pursuit of imposing” her “personal doctrines on society at large” was not based on anything she said. He made the assumption of her character, yet he did not cite *any* religious arguments used by her.


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