WITH Human Rights Day being observed today, attorney and human rights advocate, Mary Francis, is renewing her call for citizens’ rights to be respected. As such, she is urging the political directorate and citizens to ensure that measures are in place to aid in facilitating that objective.
Francis, who also serves as Coordinator of the National Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights Inc., a non-governmental organization established in 1998 to promote and advance the importance of human rights through education and legal representation, is concerned that people’s rights are not being treated as a priority.
“As human beings, we have inherent human rights. Therefore, no government gives us human rights; however, they are there to ensure that our human rights are protected by not engaging in activities that could violate our inalienable rights,” Francis told The VOICE.
Human Rights Day has been observed annually across the world on December 10 since 1948 to honour the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights and one of the first major achievements of the new United Nations.
This year’s Human Rights Day theme is “Stand up for someone’s rights today”. Francis believes the theme is timely given the pressing need for the rights of Saint Lucians to be made a national issue given the current climate that has seen many people expressing concerns that their rights are being eroded.
“I think it is opportune for such a theme based on the abuses and injustices that occur in Saint Lucia,” Francis said. “Some of these abuses and injustices might be done subtly but they occur nonetheless. So I think the theme empowers people to not just stand up for their rights but for the rights of others as well.”
Francis cited violence against women and children, police abuse and delayed justice as instances that confirm the abridging of people’s human rights. She believes Human Rights Day offers the opportunity for people to pause and reflect what progress has been made in advancing citizens’ rights and what shortcomings need to be rectified.
“We are still seeing high levels of domestic violence and violence against children after so many years of signing on to a myriad of conventions that aim to promote people’s human rights. This proves that the need is there to increase the level of education of and also stand up for our rights,” Francis explained.
Francis said the State is not doing enough to ensure the infrastructure and policies are in place to tackle the challenges faced by citizens who continuously complain that their basic human rights are not seen as priorities by the State. She called for a tweaking of the school curriculum to include human rights as a mandatory course of study.
“I think we’re still stuck in the colonial mode: it’s our mindset and culture actually impinging on us actually trying to evolve or bring about a culture of human rights,” Francis charged. “Under the colonial experience, violence and injustice was the order of the day. People were discriminated against and that was accepted as part of the colonial norm. So I believe that explains the indifference we have to human rights.”
She added: “The whole question of human rights speaks to States which have the power to affect our lives. For instance, the State is the body that is responsible for the police ensuring protection of the citizenry. But you often find the police themselves violating the very law. So we need oversight of State actions.”
Francis emphasized the need for the justice system to do away with its overwhelming impediments and allow for citizens being afforded speedy trials. She described as “shameful and disrespectful” that the main courthouse on Peynier Street in Castries remains closed for nearly two years to undergo repairs.
“Why should the State take away people’s liberty for years while they are on remand? If the State thinks I committed an offence and imprisons me, then why should they not be in a position to remedy the situation by affording me access to justice, which is a basic human right? We should not just have a Constitution on paper,” she said.
Francis, who has experienced backlash from critics who accuse her of defending the rights of people selectively, said she has always championed the cause of every citizen despite their standing in the public’s view. As such, she implores that every citizen does the same today and every day.
“As we observe Human Rights Day, I urge all Saint Lucians to stand up for someone’s rights,” Francis said. “When we stand up for someone’s rights, we are also standing up for ours. We have to be vigilant and not be afraid. Without human rights, we are virtually non-existent.”