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HIV/AIDS stigma and ganja-use debates in Caricom

By Rickey Singh

AS Caribbean Community Heads of Government finalise arrangements for their participation in this week’s four-day summit in Antigua, a senior American diplomat and a Jamai­ca-based non-government organisation have come forward with surprising positions on two different issues of much importance to the regional economic integration movement.

First, there was the statement by the US assistant secretary at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, last week that there has been “no consultation” between his government and Caricom that member states of the Community were moving to change their laws to decriminalise possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use.

Subsequently followed a complaint from the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society (JCHS) against the declared intention of Caricom governments repealing laws that discriminate against and criminalise people in consensual sex acts between adults that bear the dread HIV stigma.

The troubling dimension for the JCHS, as it said, was a recent press statement from the Caricom Secretariat that the Community’s Heads of Government would be considering at their 35th summit this week various recommendations for action on the elimination of HIV-related stigma and discrimination. The recom­mendations originated with the Community’s Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS Justice for All project.

In the reasoning of the “Healthy Society Coalition”, this announced decision by Caricom to take action on the PANCAP recommendations would be an imposition that “fundamentally re-order society”. Further, that implementation of the recommendations would be “contrary to the Caricom Charter of Civil Society”.          

As independent observers would note, whatever the merits of the Health Coalition’s case against Caricom leaders taking action on the PANCAP recommendations in relation to eliminating HIV stigma and discrimination, it should be borne in mind that though warmly welcomed 17 years ago, the Charter of Civil Society has, most regrettably, no legal status.

The charter remains, at best, an inspiring, encou­raging “Declaration”. However, as of this week, when Caricom leaders meet for their 35th regular summit, hosted by Antigua and Barbuda’s first-time Prime Minis­ter, Gaston Browne, not a single government of the 15-member Community had tabled legislation to give the Charter of Civil Society legal status.

Perhaps Jamaica’s Health Coalition, as well as groups and organisations across this region committed to the promotion and defence of human rights and human development could stir action on this front while negotiating their particular concerns over the implementation of PANCAP’s recom­mendations in dealing with the HIV/AIDS problems.

In relation to the claimed “lack of consultation” on Caricom’s intent to decriminalise possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use is concerned, a simple truth needs to be appreciated, and not only by the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, but all regional and extra-regional partners of the Caribbean Community:
That truth is the proposed initiative by the region’s governments is a work in progress and they are not yet ready to present a collective plan for discussion/consultation with any foreign partner state or regional agency, institution or organisation.

Just last week, the Prime Minister of St Lucia, Dr Kenny Anthony, former head of Legal Affairs at the Community Secretariat in Georgetown, made the very relevant observation that “the movement of (Caricom) citizens within the region makes it difficult to deal with the decriminalisation of marijuana on an individual (country) basis.

Therefore, I believe that the issue must be dealt with on the regional level”.

Outgoing chairman of Caricom Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines fully embraces the necessity for a “regional approach” on what he recognises as a sensitive issue that cannot be ignored.

In this context, the Vincentian Prime Minister, who hands over chairmanship of the Community tomorrow to new Prime Minister Browne in Antigua, stressed “no proper consultation” could have taken place with any representative of the US government, or else, since Caricom Heads of Government have not yet determined the approaches to be collectively pursued on decriminalising possession and use of marijuana.
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