Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Profile on the Bahamas Human Rights Network

At the invitation of a local pastor late last year, my wife and I have gotten involved in the work of the Bahamas Human Rights Network (BHRN), which has turned out to be a great way to stand in solidarity with the people we serve in the local Haitian churches on a number critical issues affecting their community.

BHRN is a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to insuring the fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons living in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, as defined by the Bahamas Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To that end, BHRN seeks to collaborate with any groups or individuals living in the Bahamas whose human rights have been violated. Since BHRN was officially launched on December 8th of last year, it has made it a priority to involve itself in a number of areas that impact the Haitian community in the Bahamas.

The first area of involvement is educational. BHRN is currently collaborating with the Legal Aid Clinic of the Eugene Dupuch Law School (EDLS) to translate and publish literature informing Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian descent about their legal rights regarding their immigration status as well as the application process for Bahamian citizenship. This literature will be made available in both English and Haitian Creole and will be distributed through local Haitian churches as well as the Carmichael Road Detention Center. BHRN is also committed to providing information about its activities at important events in the local Haitian community as it did during last month’s United Evangelistic Crusade.

Secondly, BHRN is also partnering with the EDLS Legal Aid Clinic to offer legal assistance to Haitians whose rights have been violated. Just two months ago, for example, an unarmed Haitian man was shot in the leg by a police officer while attempting to flee a routine Defense Force roundup of illegal immigrants. That man is now being charged with attempting to assault and disarm the officer who shot him. Currently, this case is working its way through the local court system and the accused is being represented by a legal aid attorney provided by EDLS. BHRN expects to continue collaborating with the Legal Aid Clinic on these and other cases involving human rights violations.

Thirdly, BHRN is especially committed to addressing the issues that are faced by Haitians and Haitian-Bahamians residing in the Mud and Pigeon Pea, both of which are Haitian squatter settlements on the outskirts of Marsh Harbour, Abaco. In addition to providing the same kinds of services mentioned above, BHRN is also seeking a more comprehensive political and socioeconomic approach to the problems in those communities. That process has already begun as representatives from BHRN have traveled to Abaco several times over the past year (beginning even before BHRN was officially launched) to hold “town meetings” and dialogue with community leaders in the Mud and Pigeon Pea.

BHRN’s next step will be to broaden this dialogue to include government and community leaders from outside the settlements. On the 22nd of June, BHRN and EDLS will team up with the College of Bahamas (COB) School of Social Sciences to conduct a panel discussion on the topic “Shackled Freedom: Immigrant Communities in Crisis, Human Rights and Social Justice.” The event will be held in the proximity the Mud and Pigeon Pea in order to facilitate the participation of the members of those communities. Tentative panelists will be Dr. Antoine St. Louis, pastor of Victory Chapel Church of the Nazarene in Nassau; the Rt. Hon. Fred Mitchell, MP and former Minister of Foreign Affairs; Thaddeus McDonald, Dean of Social and Educational studies at COB; as well as a representative from the new FNM government.

Fourth and finally, BHRN has become involved in political advocacy on matters in Haiti that affect the flow of Haitian migrants to the Bahamas. In March, for example, BHRN passed a resolution calling for the cancellation of Haiti’s international debt so that money being used to pay off loans (the bulk of which were accrued under the Duvalier regime and, instead of being invested in national development, ended up financing the family’s lavish lifestyle) can instead be redirected to the country’s national development efforts.

Having outlined this somewhat ambitious agenda, it is important to keep in mind that BHRN is not exclusively about Haitian rights but rather human rights and, as such, seeks to secure the rights and freedoms of all persons living in the Bahamas. While Haitian rights have been the starting point for its work, BHRN has also been in dialogue with other groups as well. A few months ago, for example, BHRN met with leaders from the Rastafarian community to discuss their human rights concerns. Ultimately, dialogue such as this will result in BHRN broadening its activities to encompass the concerns of the Rastafarians as well as other groups in the Bahamas whose human rights must be secured.

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to continue to chronicle the ongoing activities of BHRN.

For more information about BHRN or to find out the date for BHRN’s next public meeting, call 242-327-1660. BHRN is also putting together a website and, hopefully, that will be available online soon. When it is, I will be sure to post a link here on this blog for those who might be interested.

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