Speech on the occasion of the UWI/FOL's Human Rights Open Day
January 26, 2017
H.E. Arend Biesebroek, Ambassador, Delegation of the European Union to Trinidad and Tobago
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
It is my pleasure to be able to speak to you today. I wish to thank UWI Faculty of Law for the invitation and commend the Dean, Prof. Belle-Antoine, and the Faculty for hosting this Human Rights Open Day, which is part of the Faculty's EU-funded project on, “Growing Capacity for Elevating Trinidad and Tobago to International Human Rights Standards.”
Events such as this this one are important as they allow us to reach out to people beyond the limited borders of our own institutions to stimulate dialogue, a greater understanding of the human rights issues that challenge us and to effect change where it is needed.
Let me state at the outset that this will not be speech about human rights per se, or even a discourse about the merits of this specific event (I am confident that UWI will explain this quite effectively in their own prepared remarks). Instead I will attempt to explain why the EU supports projects such as this one, and why we are directing more support and funding to civil society and non-governmental organizations.
You are all aware that last week Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. I say this, not to engage a discussion about Donald Trump and his policies; instead, I want to draw your attention the phenomenon that occurred the day after the inauguration – when we witnessed what was possibly one of the largest demonstrations to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms in recent history – the Women's March on Washington DC.
What we witnessed in the USA this past weekend was social movement – individuals and organizations using their collective influence to hold their new leaders accountable for their actions, to express their concerns that acquired rights would no longer be respected.
Note that it is not just the March per se but it is in the ability of these citizens to be aware and involved, to organize and to act appropriately and overwhelmingly to bring about protect their rights and to change - capabilities that the EU is committed to assisting CSO's to enhance.
This is why the EU is focusing even greater attention on civil society, including non-governmental organizations, in Trinidad and Tobago.
Under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (or EIDHR), for example, we are supporting the work of NGO's and institutions to uphold fundamental human rights and freedoms. In 2016 we awarded two grants – one to the UWI Faculty of Law to support this project to elevate human rights in Trinidad and Tobago to international standards, and another to the Emancipation Support Committee for their project on Gender Equality and Fatherhood. We also recently awarded two grants to two consortiums. One is being led by the University of the West Indies under the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, and the other is led by the Interarts Foundation. Both projects will address gender-based violence and LGBTI rights.
Under our 11th EDF and CSO/LA Thematic budgets, we recently awarded a grant to a consortium led by the United Way to build the capacity of CSO's to become more actively involved in the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda for Trinidad and Tobago.
We are supporting these projects because we believe that civil society organisations have an important role to play for citizens to express their concerns, to protect common values, to advocate for change when internationally recognised human rights are not respected; or to ensure service delivery where the state falls short. They are the ones who must act as watchdogs to ensure that resources are responsibly allocated, that the voice of the citizenry is heard and that all can meaningfully contribute to the development of society. Simply put, Government works much more efficiently when its citizens are more involved.
So, let me commend all of the NGO's and CSO's in Trinidad and Tobago – including those present here today – on the work that they are doing. They have a critical role to play and are vital partners to your country's key decision makers. I am happy that everyone visiting this Open House today will have an opportunity to learn more about the important work that these organizations are doing, often with very limited resources, and I hope that they become inspired to become more involved to support their endeavours.
I also must take the opportunity to congratulate the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for the strides it has taken in advancing human rights in recent months. We just witnessed the significant steps taken to end child marriages. Also, earlier in 2016, Trinidad and Tobago underwent a second review by the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review - which is the process all 193 member states of the United Nations must undergo to assess their human rights records. This country was recognized for its positive achievements, including the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the adoption of the Trafficking in Persons Act, the adoption of Children's Act, as well as legislative reforms to promote and protect women's rights.
Of course there were also recommendations given – and these focused on the need to continue the ongoing work on women's rights and gender based violence, to repeal the laws against LGBTI persons, to abolish death penalty, to reinforce the fight against trafficking in persons and to ratify various international conventions including the Convention Against Torture and the optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is where Trinidad's NGO's and CSO's can and must continue to play a critical role to assist the Government to follow through on these actions.
Let me end with a final word on another historic event that shows that human rights gained can be easily lost and continuous action, outreach and engagement are necessary. In the 1970's Kabul, Afghanistan was a place where women rights were respected. Where they were free to dress the way they liked, free to follow education, free to make their own choices. That is not the Afghanistan of today. Therefore, continued advocacy, also in countries that have a good human rights record or countries that are working to strengthen them, remains necessary.
As Maryam Ali, daughter of boxing legend the late Muhammad Ali, speaking at the Rally in Washington, said: "Don’t get frustrated, get involved. Don’t complain, organize." This is the message I would like leave with each of you today, along with a firm commitment from the EU to continue to support your efforts when and where we can.