02 February 2012

Racial Discrimination: The Caribs, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, and the United Nations

In at least two previous articles I discussed the responses and positions taken by successive governments of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago with respect to the nature and extent of recognition of the Indigenous presence in the country, particularly in response to queries from the United Nations and in connection with the failure to admit a Carib or Amerindian or Indigenous category in the national census (see: "Does Trinidad Recognize Its Indigenous People?" and "News about Trinidad's Caribs and the State"). What I want to do now, after a delay of a few years, is to go into greater depth concerning the details of Trinidad's responses to the UN, and the questions that have been posed to successive Trinidadian governments by UN committees about just how in fact Trinidad "recognized" Indigenous persons in the country. Unfortunately, even with a delay of years, this topic is still timely.

First, let's begin with a key document: that by the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), "Compilación de observaciones finales del Comité para la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial sobre países de América Latina y el Caribe (1970-2006)" provided below (and the original on CERD's site). The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was first adopted in 1965, and entered into force in 1969. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) "is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties".

The report in question covers a period of 36 years and consists of summaries that in the case of Trinidad and Tobago repeatedly focused on the Caribs on Arima--not even the Caribs of Arima themselves knew about the existence of these documents and government statements.

In 1980, (Report of the thirty-fifth session Supplement No. 18 [A/35/18], starting on page 547) CERD indicated from early on that it had a special interest in the fate of the Caribs, even if we are not clear as to how CERD even learned about a Carib presence since this time pre-dates the formal act of recognition that occurred in 1990:
"131. ...Moreover, additional information was requested on measures to encourage multiracial organizations and movements and on programmes aimed at enabling the Carib Indian population to participate in the country's development" (p. 548).
In 1981, (Report of the thirty-sixth session Supplement No. 18 [A/36/18], starting on page 544) CERD asks about the following:
"436. ...Further information was also requested on their economic status, on Government plans to aid backward regions or economically disadvantaged groups, on specific development programmes for the Carib and Arawak people, on steps taken to enable them to preserve their identity, on the reaction of ethnic groups to the introduction of the Hindi language in schools and on the effectiveness of measures taken by Trinidad and Tobago in 1980 to combat racism and racial discrimination. Reference was made, in particular, to the question as to how laws could continue to be valid while offending against the provisions of the Constitution, and it was asked whether an unjust law which came into being during the colonial period would still have to be applied in the country and whether an unjust law which had been enacted by Parliament after independence could be declared unconstitutional by the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Privy Council" (p. 545).
CERD clearly indicates here that it values cultural survival, and believes that the state should work to support that. What is also interesting is what comes in the last few sentences of the above paragraph, which places a large question mark on the nature of Trinidadian state "independence". It seems that a number of colonial laws have been maintained, even though they violated the Constitution of the Republic.

What is interesting to note is how the Trinidadian government replied about the number of Caribs in Trinidad--especially since they have not been counted on any census since Independence:
"442. ...The Carib-Indian population was extremely small, numbering less than 300, and had almost disappeared as a separate group" (p. 545).
This is orthodoxy in action. There is no evidence to support such an assertion, and therefore the assertion comes from somewhere other than actual documentation. In fact, it is a repetition of well worn narratives written by colonial elites almost 150 years beforehand. See this for example on the number of surviving Indigenous People:
At present there cannot be above 200 or 300 Indians in the colony, so that the aborigines may be said to be almost extinct….finally sunk under the ascendancy of a more intelligent race….but I also coincide in opinion with some judicious observers, who trace the approximate extinction of those tribes to the marked presence manifested by the Indian women towards the negroes and the whites, by whome they were kindly treated, whilst they were regarded by their husbands, of kindred race, more as slaves and beasts of burden, than as equals or companions. As a consequence of those connections, there exists at present, in the colony, a certain number of individuals of Indian descent, but of mixed blood” (De Verteuil, 1858, p. 172). 
“All but” disappeared:
“as in most other similar cases, persecution or civilization, perhaps both, have driven before them these wild children of the plains, until they have become, so far as Trinidad is concerned, all but extinct” (Collens, 1886, p. 7).
It is remarkable to see the exact same claims made nearly 150 years later, including the demographic size of the Carib community, which would imply some extremely strict enforcement that couples must produce no more than two children, ever. In other words, failing the credibility test, the Trinidadian state has no explanation for the outlandish demographic stasis that it seems to present as fact.

In 1984, CERD (Report of the thirty-ninth session Supplement No. 18 [A/39/18], starting on page 542) indicates the following need for information:
"198. With reference to article 2 of the Convention, information was requested on the state of relations between the different racial and ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago. The Committee was of the view that it would be useful to receive statistics on the country's demographic composition and to know on what basis individuals were classified as belonging to a given ethnic group. Moreover, members wished to know which ethnic groups were disadvantaged and what measures were being taken to enable them to catch up with the rest of the population, whether there were any refugees in Trinidad and Tobago and, if not, whether the Government was prepared to admit any into the country, whether comparative data could be made available on the educational level, literacy rate and income of the different ethnic groups, particularly of the Carib people, and whether any positive measures had been taken to protect and encourage the economic and social progress of the Carib people" (p. 542).
From early on then, CERD was clearly, and later repeatedly, keen to get data on the Caribs, which the Trinidadian state was simply not collecting, which also puts into very bold relief the question of what is the nature of Trinidad's recognition of its Indigenous People?

In 1987 (Report of the forty-second session Supplement No. 18 [A/42/18], starting on page 539) we read that CERD was requesting specific statistical details about the number of Caribs, among other groups:
"452. ...Members requested further information regarding the ethnic composition of the population, in particular, the ratio of Africans to East Indians, who together accounted for 81.5 per cent of the total population, and the percentage of Caribs in the population. It was pointed out, however, that in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, the various ethnic groups were intermingled and that identification with a particular group was only possible in a very limited number of cases" (p. 540).
Here we see an instance of where the government of Trinidad and Tobago is unsure of how to respond to questions of racial identification that presume sort of clear dividing lines, in light of a long history of unions that cross ethnic lines. Indeed, it is not uncommon on older censuses to find a huge minority of Trinidadians declaring themselves to be "Other". CERD does not seem to clarify its statements.

In 1998, CERD (Report of the fiftieth session, Supplement No. 18 [A/50/18], starting on page 536) asked the government of Trinidad and Tobago to explain what is in fact a doctrinal orthodoxy in narratives of Trinidadian history produced by the colonial elites since the early 1800s, and that is the idea that "the Caribs had all but disappeared":
"34. Members of the Committee asked why the Caribs had all but disappeared, exactly how many were left, why they were not treated as a separate racial group and whether measures were being taken to help them, particularly in the economic and educational fields, so as to compensate them for the injustices they had suffered" (p. 536).
This is both positive and problematic, and it is not as if CERD is above criticism itself. CERD astutely targets a suspicious statement by the Trinidadian government (we don't have the statement itself, but we can infer it from CERD's response) about the Caribs having "all but" disappeared, and yet not providing any numbers because they are not counted on the census and therefore the assertion is made without evidence. On the other hand, CERD assumes that the Caribs must be racially distinct to be recognized as a "separate" group, which is an almost alarming statement that would seem to reinforce racial conceptions rather than eliminate them. For the Trinidadian government, and those within it who had some knowledge of the Caribs, the idea that they could cast the Caribs as "racially separate" must have seemed both odious and ridiculous, when by the admissions of most members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, they are "mixed". However, that too is inadequate, because it equates culture and ethnicity with genes. If CERD really seeks to eliminate racial discrimination, it needs to clean up its own language, which seems to ask governments to discriminate among citizens (in the sense of discerning who is what) in racial terms, while ignoring cultural differences.

What is also questionable is whether the Trinidadian state should be compensating the Caribs for past injustices, committed by the British colonial regime, and whether the Trinidadian state is thus liable for British actions, as if this formed part of its inherited obligations. As noted in 1981, the Trinidadian state was still maintaining and enforcing colonial laws that pre-dated independence, and in this case, is the Trinidadian state not a continuation of colonialism by other means? Then the question becomes, why just compensate the Caribs and not others, such as Africans who were enslaved? This is a very complicated question, which is why it is surprising to see CERD making these statements in such an unproblematized fashion.

It is also worth noting that the government of Trinidad and Tobago had not responded to CERD for a total of 11 years (the report says eight years, but provides no entry for Trinidad in 1990), for reasons which are not indicated.

In 2001 CERD (Report of the fifty-sixth session, Supplement No. 18 [A/56/18], starting on page 532) rejected the Trinidadian government's position that there was no racial discrimination in Trinidad and Tobago: "348. The assertion by the State party as to the absence of racial discrimination on its territory was not accepted by the Committee and it was recommended by the Committee that the State party reconsider this stand" (p. 533).

With specific reference to the Caribs, in 2001 CERD stated:
"351. The Committee expresses its concern at the absence in this report of specific information on the indigenous population as well as other relatively small ethnic groups of the State party in the report, and particularly the absence of a specific categorization of the indigenous population as a separate ethnic group in official statistics on the population. The Committee encourages the Government to include the indigenous population in any statistical data as a separate ethnic group, and actively to seek consultations with them as to how they prefer to be identified, as well as on policies and programmes affecting them" (p. 534).
Now we move on to a different set of UN documents, beginning with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) "Country Programme Strategy for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago" published in 2005. There is not the same sense of interrogation and reply that we with the CERD reports above, but clearly the following involves information supplied by the Trinidadian state, which mirrors (sometimes word for word) statements found on some websites including those produced by myself, using wording that I used for brochures made for the Santa Rosa Carib Community. This is what the UNDP states about the Caribs under "2.5 Indigenous Peoples and Vulnerable Groups" on page 7:
"Indigenous Peoples in Trinidad and Tobago are represented by Amerindian peoples who have existed in Trinidad for as long as 7,000 years before the arrival of Columbus, and numbered at least 40,000 at the time of Spanish settlement in 1592. All of Trinidad was populated by several tribes, Trinidad being a transit point in the Caribbean network of Amerindian trade and exchange. Amerindian tribes were referred to by various names: Yaio, Nepuyo, Chaima, Warao, Carinepogoto, Aruaca, Shebaio, Saluaio, etc. In 1996 the Santa Rosa Carib Community Organisation was formally incorporated as a limited liability company under the Companies Act".
Actually, the year of incorporation was 1976. Needless to say, what continues to be missing from these official documents is any mention of any attempt to ask Trinidadians if they identify as Indigenous, Carib, or any other cognate term. What we do see is minimal effort invested in the act of reporting, and a continued reliance on "authoritative knowledge".

On September 22, 2011, Rodney Charles, Trinidad and Tobago's Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a statement at the "High-Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to Commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the Adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action". The section dealing with the Caribs was especially brief, and instructive for being not just so minimal but also for its focus:
"Other festivals are also observed such as the Santa Rosa Carib Festival which pays tribute to our indigenous population, as well as Double Ten Day, in honour of our local Chinese population" (p. 4).
In other words, they do not even get a whole sentence to themselves, and are mentioned in passing under "other festivals". Festivals: this mention represents the Trinidadian state's continued effort to "showcase" its Indigenous Peoples, which albeit a form of recognition is one that reduces Indigenous identity and community to a mere adjunct of the state's efforts to display diversity, rather than deal with it seriously.