Quite a bit of sensation and misreporting has been generated in the local, regional and international media about a proposed legal challenge to the immigration law of Trinidad & Tobago. A local television station reported that “An AIDS group in New York is suing the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for prohibiting the entry of homosexuals to the country…so offensive is the law that AIDS Free World has filed suit in the Caribbean Court of Justice…demanding that the discriminatory provision be expunged…The group says the government…does not have a leg to stand on and it is confident of…possibly changing the laws of this country”. Here are some clarifications of what’s actually taking place.
What is this case about; and who is bringing it? There are in fact two cases. They are being heard jointly. A Jamaican national (who is also a gay activist and lawyer and works for an international organization, AIDS Free World, which is supporting his challenge and has been closely associated with the case in the media) is using the provisions of CARICOM’s Revised Treaty of Chaguaramus to make two similar claims with regard to the states of Belize and Trinidad & Tobago. Maurice A Tomlinson is arguing that the immigration laws of each nation which make homosexuals prohibited immigrants violate the freedom of movement provisions he ought to enjoy as a national of Jamaica under the Treaty, as well as his right to not be discriminated against based on his nationality by either state. Under the Treaty, disputes concerning its provisions and related rights are heard by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) sitting in its “original jurisdiction”. (The CCJ has also been given appellate jurisdiction as the final court for some Caribbean nations, including Belize; but it is not acting in that capacity here.) When an individual CARICOM national like Tomlinson seeks to bring a claim that their rights under the treaty have been negatively affected and that person’s state has either failed to bring the claim to the court on their behalf (something Jamaica did with Shanique Myrie[*]) or has agreed that the national should do so herself, the CCJ holds a hearing to listen to both sides and make a determination if these conditions have been met and if it is in the interest of justice for the national to bring the case directly to the Court. If it finds so, the Court can grant the applicant leave to do so. A decision is expected to be rendered at the conclusion of Wednesday’s proceedings.
The case is an innovative use of the CARICOM treaty to advance LGBTI equality and challenge some of the domestic laws that make LGBTI persons unequal citizens which exist in all CARICOM states. Because the provisions of the immigration laws being challenged target people who are not citizens of the respective countries, the non-nationals the laws affect are the people in a position to challenge them, and the Chaguaramas treaty provides such an opening for CARICOM nationals.
Courts also allow parties other than a complainant to play a role in matters before the Court when they have a substantial legal interest that may be affected by the Court’s decision. Free movement of lesbian, gay and bisexual persons between CARICOM member countries, including to Trinidad & Tobago, where its secretariat is located, is critical to the mission of the 16-year-old Caribbean Forum for Liberation and Acceptance of Genders and Sexualities, a regional LGBTI advocacy network involved with such travel multiple times each year. CariFLAGS plans to become a party in the case, with the Court’s permission. CariFLAGS and CAISO will play an active role in educating the public about the case and the law. On Monday November 25 at 6:00 pm, a public forum will take place (tentatively at NALIS at Abercromby & Hart Streets in Port of Spain) with this goal. For updated information visit: www.facebook.com/caiso/events.
What is the suit seeking? Can the CCJ change our laws if it’s not our court of appeal? If the CCJ finds that Tomlinson’s rights have been infringed, as it did recently in the case of Shanique Myrie*, it is empowered under the Treaty to award damages as compensation and to make a declaration that the domestic immigration laws violate community rights. Because CARICOM countries have agreed, in signing the Treaty, to be bound by decisions of the CCJ in its original jurisdiction, Trinidad & Tobago and Belize could be subject to sanctions from CARICOM if they leave the laws unchanged after such a Court ruling. However, acting in its original jurisdiction, the CCJ cannot alter or strike down national laws the way an appellate court could.
What’s does the immigration law do, and what is Government’s position on it? Trinidad & Tobago’s immigration laws, whose history dates back to before Independence, retain several antiquated provisions that reflect a historic preoccupation of many immigration codes around the world with keeping out disease, deformity, dependency, deviance, depravity and the darker-skinned. US immigration law, e.g., until 1990 had similar provisions excluding homosexuals, and still maintains references to “moral turpitude”. Our laws deem as “prohibited immigrants” homosexuals, as well as those who live off their earnings and those reasonably suspected of coming or attempting to bring others into the country for homosexual purposes. Each of these provisions is applied in the same stroke to “prostitutes” (Subsection 8 (1) and paragraph (e) of the Immigration Act of 1969). The laws also provide for the deportation of persons who practise, assist in the practice, or share in the avails of homosexualism (Subsection 9 (4) and paragraph (a)). Other groups deemed prohibited immigrants in the law are “persons who are idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded…suffering from dementia and insane…who are likely to be a charge on public funds…dumb, blind or otherwise physically defective” (Subsection 8 (1), paragraphs (a), (c) and (h)).
Ministry of National Security officials have stated that a committee reviewed the immigration law in 2010 and recommended legislative removal of the homosexual provisions; and an Immigration Division spokesperson has told the media that entrants are not questioned about their sexual orientation. When the Patrick Manning administration was pressed by Pastors Winston Cuffie, Terrance Baynes (later appointed a People’s Partnership senator), Archdeacon Phillip Isaac and other Tobago clergymen to enforce the law against Elton John in 2007, Trinidad & Tobago was lampooned by US television comedians, Chief Secretary Orville London declared “we in the Tobago House of Assembly are very clear that we do not support any ban on any individual on these grounds”, and the central government issued John a waiver to enter and perform at the Tobago Jazz Festival. But no bill has been introduced to amend the law, which continues to be an international embarrassment and to stigmatize LGBTI and other people, and 8(1)(e) could potentially be invoked by any zealous immigration officer.
[*] This is not the first time a CARICOM national has petitioned the CCJ for redress for violation of Treaty rights. The Court recently ordered Barbados to pay Jamaican national Shanique Myrie BDS$77,240 as compensation for violation of her right to free movement when Barbados immigration authorities detained her upon entry, subjected her to taunts and cavity searches, kept her overnight and deported her to Jamaica the following day. All CARICOM nationals share these rights within the region under the Treaty.