Women's Issues In Guyana

For Justice

Posted in Commentary by wiig on January 6, 2008
Tags: , , ,

Kaieteur News – January 6, 2008
Ravi Dev Column

2007 closed as almost every year has probably ended in Guyana – with fervent calls from a variety of groups in Guyana for greater “justice” in the way our society and its institutions – especially the state – are organised and operate. The most persistent appeals have been from leaders in the African Guyanese community.

To say that these calls have been echoed in all societies throughout history is of absolutely no comfort. Two years ago we wrote:
In Guyana there exists great suspicions in the people as to the motives of those who propose “solutions” to our national problems.
Any initiative, or set of initiatives, that are offered to address Guyana’s political crisis will have to engender broad acceptance across the political, ethnic and other divisions in the people and especially amongst the politicians.

This implies that the various groups, as they define themselves, would have to agree on the proposals for establishing the institutions to govern them.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant succinctly posed the dilemma of organising a just state, two centuries ago, in these terms:
“The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved, even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.
The problem is, given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of them is sincerely inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a Constitution in such a way, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”

Kant proposed that the solution to the inevitable conflicts in organised human societies lay in the design of institutions that should ensure the persons behaving in accordance with its rules, are behaving justly and morally. He proposed that institutions, as with all normative behaviour, would have to satisfy the “categorical imperative”, which in one popular formulation states: act in accordance to rules that you would wish applied to everyone as if they were universal laws.

The question for the PPP government would be whether they would want the PNC to act as they are doing if they were the opposition and the PNC controlled the state.

Most commentators who followed Kant agreed with his stricture that institutions constituting a state must be organised in accordance with the principle of justice, but his criterion of the categorical imperative proved nettlesome in day to day politics.

John Rawls, the most influential of modern liberal political philosophers, came up with another formulation to guide the formation of social institutions nearly two centuries later, in 1971.

It had the great virtue of simplicity.

In the opening line of his first section in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, Rawls boldly declared that the principle of “justice” is the standard that would generate the broad acceptability for the establishment of any institution necessary to implement any initiative for enduring stability:
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” Recognizing that Guyana does not even reach Rawls’ definition of a society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests.”

His definition of “justice” is yet very pertinent to our effort to construct a democratic state in Guyana: “…a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.” Inequalities, he proposed, must only be tolerated if they help the most disadvantaged in the society.

The question for us is whether “the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation” are distributed justly by the state.
Is VAT, for instance, helping the most disadvantaged of our society even though it’s most efficient bureaucratically.

In Guyana, we all have to appreciate that the existence of the state itself is for the furtherance of the societal good – the public interest. Ultimately we believe that all Guyanese are looking to be culturally authentic, politically secure and economically sound.

In the furtherance of these “public goods”, the people have to promulgate a constitution through which the government directs the state through policies and programmes in consonance with the prime directives of the Constitution.

In modern democracies, under the liberal paradigm, equality of treatment and equality before the law of the citizens stands at the very top of the imperatives.

We have proposed that under a federalist state, institutions will be created to implement the policies of Ethnic Impact Statements, multiculturalism, federal form of government, Government of National Reconciliation, Catalytic Economic State, Affirmative Action etc. in the fulfillment of the national goals.

However, because each individual citizen or group of citizens is situated differently (according to specific criteria) governmental policies and programmes will inevitably have a different impact on different citizens.

Our tax laws, for instance, are designed to extract a greater percentage of the income of the rich than the poor. In fact we have decided that citizens earning below a certain threshold do not have to pay any taxes.

While the rich may think that the law is discriminatory – they are not being treated equally – and it is, we accept it because we feel it is morally justified in furtherance of the societal good.

In Guyana, our Constitution itself, while it promulgates equality and forbids discrimination, in Art. 149 has just changed from Art 29 the stipulation that “Women and men have equal rights…” to “Women’s participation in the various management and decision-making processes…”

By law women must now constitute one third of the members of any political slate.

We accept these things because they are part of our general moral assumptions – they are right because they further our conception of the national good.

And this is the ultimate test that is used in both ethical and legal theories to evaluate state activity affecting citizens in society – especially when it is claimed that a particular affects some citizens differently.

The task of the Government is to ensure that their differential treatment is not arbitrary and capricious and irrational – and that they further some societal good, especially for the socially disadvantaged.

There should be a correlation between the classification and the purpose of the statute so that citizens can presume the impartiality of the legislators.

Thus even those adversely impacted may consider it an acceptable cost of achieving a larger societal goal.

In Guyana a feeling of injustice is pervasive in all groups in the society as they struggle to live in dignity – especially within the political, economic and cultural spheres.

The history of Guyana has demonstrated the importance of contexts in the introduction of institutions into society – whether these are in the political, economic or cultural spheres.

The institutions will have to be seen as just. Rules that go against the values and morals of a people or lead to injustice will be observed in the breach or not at all; the institution will at best be ignored or at worse lead to dysfunctional social behaviour.

In Guyana we would have to derive our substantive principles of justice for ourselves based on our history and present realities.

Slavery and indentureship have been the two historical forces that have had the greatest impact on our collective psyche and our disparate cultures.

Today there are many leaders who refuse to accept that our ethnic collectivities may have specific problems – just as they used to ignore the specific problems of women -in addition to the common societal ones.

For instance, while out of our history, all groups were denied, the values of liberty and equality – central to what we desire for the “good life” and these values must be central to any institution that seeks to address any aspect of our national life, there are also group-specific problems – such as anti-African racism – that must be addressed on their merits.

Federalism is founded on a conception of human nature that places the values of liberty and equality at its centre and imbues all institutions within its framework.

It is a way of organising society that balances the inevitable contradictory pulls of unity and diversity imminent in any agglomeration of humanity but even more so one as diverse as ours, and yet achieve justice between the groups in the groups of the society.

As we try to achieve our self-defined goals of securing justice in cultural autonomy, and political and economic distribution there is no alternative to adopting federalist principles to guide all proposed institutions.


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