Bermuda’s civil liberties watchdog called on the Government to ditch “reckless” plans to undermine human rights laws yesterday.
A spokeswoman for the Human Rights Commission warned that watering down the supremacy of human rights legislation over immigration law threatened the “shield” that protected international human rights standards and freedoms on the island.
The government move is designed to block court challenges to immigration law by non-Bermudians claiming discrimination on the grounds of place of origin over rights of residence and Bermuda status. The spokeswoman said: “The strength of this shield is made stronger by the HRA’s primacy over all other laws, except the Constitution; that is that all other laws must be read to be compliant with the Act.
“The stronger the shield, the stronger the protection for us all.”
The spokeswoman added: “It is therefore reckless to undermine the Human Rights Act or have it portrayed as either a tool to be manipulated, or for manipulation. Steps to reduce the effectiveness of the Act should invoke thorough examination before being enacted and should only be taken in rare cases.
“This is clearly the position in most democratic societies where exemptions from human rights legislation are carefully considered in support of balancing rights and associated implications for all stakeholders. For example, the entirety of the UK immigration legislation is not exempt from their Human Rights Act.”
The HRC spoke out after Walton Brown, the Minister of Home Affairs, tabled a Bill of amendments in the House of Assembly last Friday.
Mr Brown told MPs the amendments would give the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Act primacy over the Human Rights Act.
When asked by The Royal Gazette why further consultation was not done on the piece of legislation, the ministry responded: “It should be remembered that a major tenet of this government’s platform promise was to put Bermudians first. However, we must also clarify that there was consultation with the HRC on the matter of exempting sections of the Bermuda Immigration & Protection Act 1956 from the Human Rights Act 1981. While the minister was apprised of their concerns, he took a different position.”
The HRC spokeswoman said: “The HRC has not yet seen the draft Bill, and therefore cannot effectively address specific questions on the potential implications of the Bill.”
But she added: “Tabling a Bill of this nature, one that will have human rights implications without consultation is entirely inconsistent with the spirit and purpose of the HRA, particularly as the topic of immigration has necessarily been highly emotive and divisive.
“The HRC has already communicated with the Government that it is imperative to undertake an inclusive process of consultation that reflects the gravity of the proposed amendments, and the significance of this national issue. The HRC advocated for comprehensive immigration reform under the previous administration, and has reinforced this need with the government; however, ensuring an inclusive consultation process is essential.”
The spokeswoman said the HRC was committed to engagement with the Government and had expressed its “urgent concern” over the proposals. She added: “There is too much at stake for media sparring and speculation at this stage. We are determined to steer the course towards less polarising and divisive engagement to address these challenging issues.
“We urge Government to withdraw the tabled Bill to allow for proper consultation as advised. Our view is that the HRA should be strengthened and protected, not weakened or minimalised. The HRC will continue to communicate our concerns to the Government and advocate for the upholding, advancement and protection of human rights in Bermuda.”