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COMMENTARY: Gay activist takes Trinidad and Tobago government to court

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- AIDS-Free World, an advocacy NGO, is challenging the immigration law of Trinidad and Tobago. Maurice Tomlinson, our Legal Advisor for Marginalized Groups is carrying the challenge forward; he is a Jamaican lawyer who is gay.

Maurice Tomlinson received an invitation from the UNFPA to participate in an HIV workshop to be held in Trinidad on December 3rd and 4th, 2012. However, section 8 of Trinidad’s Immigration Act bars entry to homosexuals; homosexuals are a prohibited class. Unless he knowingly withholds the truth, Maurice cannot enter Trinidad. He has no intention of lying, so he cannot accept the invitation from UNFPA. But he can press to have the unconscionable ban removed, so he and AIDS-Free World have decided to challenge the legality of the Act.

Maurice has now received another invitation, this time from the 15-country Caribbean Community known as CARICOM, to attend a conference, again in Trinidad, on International Human Rights Day, December 10th. And again, Maurice is obviously unable to attend. In this instance, the discriminatory provision of Trinidad’s immigration law is not only wrong in itself, but clearly runs counter to the right to freedom of movement of persons within the Caribbean Community. It is surely indefensible on the part of CARICOM to hold a conference on human rights in a jurisdiction where laws bar one class of human rights activists from attending.

Thus, with two examples from which to challenge the immigration statute, Maurice has set things in motion. The procedure involves a three-stage process. To begin, as a national of Jamaica, Maurice must inform his own government that his rights have been violated and ask that the government bring the matter to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). That has been done: Maurice has written to the Prime Minister of Jamaica.
If the Jamaican government decides not to proceed, Maurice can petition the CCJ directly, seeking permission to take the case forward. Alternately, the government of Jamaica can decide not to proceed, but give Maurice specific permission to pursue the case on his own behalf. One way or another, Maurice’s determination will not be stilled until he reaches the Caribbean Court of Justice.

A second issue is the behavior of the United Nations family. Curiously—in fact, incomprehensibly—the United Nations Development Program has confirmed that it will attend the CARICOM event on December 10th. AIDS-Free World is forced to question how two UN agencies, UNFPA and UNDP, both of which are co-sponsors of UNAIDS, can be organizing or supporting meetings to which gay men have been invited, in a country that bans entry to gay men. But the problem is not confined to these two meetings: despite the fact that the current immigration law has been in place since 1974, UNAIDS chose to locate its Regional Support Team offices in Trinidad.

We are dealing here with explicit violations of the United Nations’ human rights covenants. Given the strong words and intense feelings of the Secretary-General on discrimination issues, one wonders what his reaction will be when he’s made aware of the behavior of UN agencies. Moreover, that behavior also stands in direct contradiction to the recent report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law that recommended that laws criminalizing homosexuality be expunged from the statute books. Such laws, it argues, lead to the spread of the AIDS virus by forcing gay men underground, denying them testing, prevention, treatment, and care. The Commission functioned under the auspices of UNDP with the support of UNAIDS. The UN agencies have a lot of explaining to do.

We’re not about to accept the usual defensive nonsense about working behind the scenes. This is a case where Trinidadian law conflicts with everything the UN ostensibly stands for, and the UN has capitulated. The UN should be on the front line, holding press conferences, demanding that the law be erased. Like the UN Secretary-General, the Executive Director of UNAIDS has made the human rights of LGBT groups a personal crusade, but alas, the actions of UN agencies in the region serve to contradict the crusade.

There are those who argue that the current practice of seeking government waivers for gay men who wish to enter Trinidad for particular meetings is the best way to proceed. Apart from the favoritism this bestows on those privileged enough to have access to influence, people who argue for this strategy are complicit in upholding the legislation. Surely the history of human rights struggles has demonstrated, time and time again, that appeasement of bad law never brings social justice.

The true depths of the Immigration Act run even deeper than the ban on homosexuals. The ugly heart of the statute is displayed in the atrocious language used to describe other prohibited groups.

This is singularly true in the case of those described as “mentally-challenged,” and then explicitly defined as “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, persons suffering from dementia and insane persons ...” Also denied entry are the physically disabled, defined as “dumb, blind, or otherwise physically defective or physically handicapped ...” It’s worth noting that the Government of Trinidad has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. How that official act is reconciled with barring entry to people with disabilities or with the use of such language is beyond comprehension.

Trinidad’s immigration statute is wrong in so many respects that Maurice Tomlinson is determined to take the challenge to the highest court in the Caribbean.

He will seek the support of all those who recognize that the human rights of LGBT and persons with disabilities transcend borders, and that discrimination against one person offends all humankind. AIDS-Free World is confident that by uniting, indigenous groups and international groups can overthrow this repugnant law and send a message that will be heard far beyond Trinidad and Tobago.