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.