The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
On Oct. 27 1979, following a referendum under Milton Cato’s Labour Party government, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) became an independent country, a sovereign parliamentary democracy with complete legal and political control over its affairs.
At last, massa day done!
On Sept. 13, 2007, the Honourable Ralph E. Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party government voted to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). While the UNDRIP is not a legally binding instrument under international law, it does hold considerable moral standing as “… a significant tool towards eliminating human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous people and assisting them in combating discrimination and marginalisation”.
At last, the inalienable rights of aboriginal people around the world would be recognised!
These two events are inexorably intertwined. By accepting the UNDRIP, SVG was acting as a sovereign nation taking independent responsibility for the welfare, aspirations, and injustices committed against its indigenous people: the Garifuna at home and the forcibly exiled Garinagu abroad.
This responsibility to both groups of our aboriginal people is clearly spelled out in Articles 27 and 28:
States [in this case, SVG] shall establish and implement, in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those that were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used (my italics). Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.
- Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior or informed consent(my italics).
- Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.”
In 1797, 5,080 Garifuna — the bulk of the country’s aboriginal population — were forcibly transferred to an inhospitable island off the coast of Honduras. Their lands, some 11,000 acres that were “granted” in a treaty they were forced by the British to sign in 1769 (which saw the loss of over 20,000 acres of their land to British sugar planters), was taken from them. The few Garifuna who were allowed to remain behind in SVG were given 233 acres of land upon which they were prohibited from growing cane.
People like our own Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, want to wash their hands of any current responsibility for the “ethnic cleansing” of our aboriginal population — even after signing the UNDRIP — by claiming in his slavery and genocide reparation request that since the British government was in charge when this took place over 200 years ago, we must look to them for any restitution or compensation. This stance has neither morality nor the law on its side.
After struggling so hard for independence, the Prime Minister is now proclaiming to the world that we are still not massas in our own house.
The same argument could have been made for similar wrongs committed against their aboriginal peoples by the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, just to name some other British colonial possessions, before they became independent nation-states. Each of these sovereign countries has rightly taken sole responsibility long ago for the viscous historical treatment of their indigenous peoples.
After all, if land has to be returned to the aboriginal people, it can only be returned by these now sovereign nations which alone have the legal constitutional right to grant (if publically owned) or expropriate (if privately held) property to do so.
The Prime Minister’s blunt refusal to entertain the benign and symbolic notion of honorary citizenship for the Garinagu, if only as partial restitution for the heinous acts committed against them, is a repudiation of the spirit and intent of the UNDRIP which SVG gladly accepted in 2007.
The harsh tone of his refusal and its use of ethnic fear mongering about the loss of jobs and homes to hoards of people invading from foreign lands is also an insult to the many indigenous peoples around the world who have been subjected to the same unspeakable treatment as our Garifuna/Garinagu.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].