Press Conference: 21 September 2005
Equality Rights group GGR today held a Press Conference to address issues of concern to the organisation. Chairman Felix Alvarez made a speech outlining the development of the group over the past 5 years and highlighted the major areas of political, social and rights concern which have led to the growth of the group into an Equality and Human Rights organisation. This was followed by speeches from other members of the GGR Executive. Below are the texts of the speeches made before the media:
FIT FOR FUTURE
Felix Alvarez, Chairman
A year ago this month the Chief Minister hailed the opening of a Human Rights Symposium for the first time in Gibraltar claiming his Govt wished to foster “a human rights culture”. In that same Symposium his then Education Minister belittled and criticised the UK Human Rights Act for engendering “a compensation culture”! We ask: does this Govt know and (even more significantly) does it mean what it’s saying? Many real, moderate Social Democrats have been and are currently voting with their feet to make apparent their response. And we welcome their moderation! In reporting to you on our work over the past 5 years it is inevitable that I place that in the context of the life of this community. Human and Equality Rights do not live in a vacuum and I am necessarily bound to explain our development within the framework of Gibraltar’s political development. Because the rise of a human rights movement in Gibraltar is an important part of our growth precisely at a time in our history when we are finding our voice as Gibraltarians and when we are maturing as people in control of our own affairs. We are no longer content for politicians to simply lead us. More and more we Gibraltarians are requiring politicians follow us!
Yet in his years of Government Mr Caruana has become an Isthmus all of his own! He has shown an astounding deafness! He has demonstrated an incomparable insensitivity when it comes to making Gibraltar Fit for the Future. And it is this that Gibraltar needs today, to be Fit for the Future. It needs leadership for a community and a People facing a European future; for we are a country bordered by Europe - not isolated and islanded away from it. And that leadership requires considerably more than negotiating the question of Sovereignty. In fact, that issue has for too long been used as a smoke screen for doing nothing about the social issues which continue to remain pending on the Rock! There is a very real sense of frustration among Gibraltarians today: we do not understand why this country can be so behind in so many ways; why we can’t match the higher standards of modern societies all around us in Europe, a Europe we’re a part of. One small example is the fact that Gibraltar is supposed to implement EC directive 2002/73/EC within the next 2 weeks – by 5 October to be precise. This Directive brings in new protections for women at work regarding sexual harassment and pregnancy in particular. Has Government told you anything about this? Has there been any consultation at any level with anybody? And why have we not received a response to our question on this matter since we wrote a letter to the Chief Minister on 11 July this year?
On that same isthmus, Mr Caruana appears to be accompanied by the Attorney-General who, in response to our approach on the question of the applicability of the European Convention of Human Rights to Gibraltar, responded by appearing to suggest to us that because the Convention had not been incorporated into domestic law that somehow this meant our questions regarding Gibraltar’s requirement to comply with it were irrelevant. The UK Government, via the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, however, in response to our follow-up on the Attorney-General’s comments are as adamant and as clear as we are regarding the need for the Government of Gibraltar to live up to the Convention – and that means doing everything to respect the persuasive judgments of the European Court of Human Rights by implementing them in local law!
This is not the last Gibraltar has heard on this particular topic! We continue to work at the highest levels on this matter. And we once more call on all social agents – and in particular the Bar Council in this Anniversary year and the Opposition – to unrelentlessly press for the incorporation of the European Convention into local law in line with our European obligations!
Lack of resources, lack of organization, lack of accountability – these are consistent, oft-heard and even more oft-repeated reasons, excuses and other totally unacceptable mantras. Without a doubt, Gibraltar needs Leadership in social rights! Gibraltar needs to be fit for the future just round the corner. Gibraltar needs socially responsible Government which will interest itself in the needs of ordinary people and not just the well-off. Gibraltar needs in particular to be concerned for those who do not make up the powerful Majority! Because it is in the quality of that concern that a Society is built!
Yes, GGR this year is 5 years old. And we are shocked. We started in the year 2000 by taking gay rights out of the dark corners of silence and taboo in this community; and yet 5 years later, here we are shocked and overwhelmed! Because today in 2005 more and more civil and human rights issues are being brought to us for attention and it is for this reason that we have become a wider, Equality and Human Rights organisation. Gibraltarians are waking up to the low standards of rights in many areas which affect them and they are beginning to say that they will not be made to keep quiet any longer! Relevant to this, you will be hearing briefly today from various Executive Members: Annette Vallejo on Abuse Issues, Charles Trico on Age of Consent, from Susan Haywood on British Residence Rights and Martin Snape on Disability.
To all these issues that my Executive colleagues will be addressing, you can add an atmosphere of fear in some quarters in voicing dissent or disagreement with the authorities in case of subtle or not-so-subtle reprisals – examples such as possible refusal to award a grant applied for, withdrawal of Government advertising or funding, withdrawal of media privileges as a journalist. Whilst these may or may not be founded in actual intimidatory acts or measures and may respond more to concern than to reality, the fact is that more and more these perceptions are increasing and they are arriving at our doorstep! And they arrive there in the way that most often happens in small communities – underground and whispered but there nonetheless!
And underground also is how people who offend sexually against children operate. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) carried out research in England and Wales which suggests that there are 46 such offenders out of every 100,000 population. If we extrapolate that to Gibraltar we end up with anything between 13 to 14 individuals. And the worry is that the figure could be even higher in Gibraltar because a) this is a weak jurisdiction – we don’t have a Sex Offender’s Register system, b) there are around 25,000 sex offenders in the UK alone and we’re a place which sees a lot of movement of people from one country to another (we need go back no further than the case not so long ago of a sex offender parent who fled the UK and brought their child here to Gibraltar despite an order against doing that) and, finally c) we’re a society which still finds it difficult to be open about such subjects and paedophiles thrive in such environments and find them attractive – we make it easier for them!
At GGR, we believe in the fresh air of Democracy and whatever the dangers of freedom, we will not hesitate to bring concerns out for airing. Here, we deal with difficult issues most of the time. And we do so without either Government funding or, indeed, Government office premises to run our organisation from. In the beginning we thought this was wrong. Today we are more than glad that it should be this way. Because our effectiveness depends on GGR not being beholden to any Government. We will act as an independent voice on Equality and Human Rights in this community. We will say the things that need to be said and without fear. And that takes courage and it takes very hard work and it takes a great deal of determination 24/7!
The late Agnes Valarino was a woman of great determination and tireless energy. For too many years she worked endlessly against difficult odds to try and bring a just and modern approach to the situation of the disabled in Gibraltar. She should not and must not be forgotten. She was a real-life heroine. She is missed not only by all those disabled families she helped and led courageously but by all who have a heart and who knew what Agnes did for real people, day to day. GGR honours and pays tribute to her today. Our heart and solidarity are with her husband, Maurice and family. Before I make way for statements from members of the GGR Executive regarding their own portfolios, I would ask you to observe a 1-Minute silence in honour of Agnes Valarino.
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE STATEMENTS
Annette Vallejo (Abuse Issues):
Over the past 3 years, this organisation has been approached privately by a number of individuals concerned about the sexual abuse of children by members of their families and close individuals. The problem is a trickle, but it’s a trickle that shouldn’t be there! Yet we ask ourselves this: behind this trickle of brave people willing to at least take the first painful steps in confronting such a painful situation, how many more are keeping silent due to fear, confusion and the desperate worry that noone will really help them or pay attention? It is an answer that desperately worries us too in GGR.
As Coordinator in GGR for issues on Abuse, I want to make a call to those of you who hear me. Whether you yourself are directly affected or you happen to know someone who IS affected, you are most definitely NOT alone! Contact me in all confidence by writing to GGR at PO Box 425. If you let me have a means of contacting you, I will be happy to meet with you in private to provide whatever assistance we are capable of. Remember that there are people out there who CAN help and it is my job to bring together all the resources I can muster to help. I understand that a charitable project to provide phone-line services on this issue has been launched. This is a welcome development and we at GGR are willing to lend whatever support is required of us in that enterprise. It is good to see independent initiatives taking place across the community!
At the same time, I wish to turn to the authorities.
1. Two years ago almost to the day, GGR asked this question: “Does Government Not Care about Child Sex Abuse?” In that statement, we called for Government to introduce a Sex Offenders Register along UK lines. GOVERNMENT HAS DONE NOTHING! We ask again: DOES GOVT STILL NOT CARE ABOUT CHILD SEX ABUSE? If it does, why is nothing being done to introduce such a Register. ONCE MORE WE CALL ON GOVERNMENT TO INTRODUCE SUCH A REGISTER FOR THE PEACE OF MIND OF THIS COMMUNITY!
2. Furthermore, it is our duty to say to the Public: we are concerned that the authorities may not be dealing with the question of Child Sex Abuse sufficiently seriously. Whilst we are at the early stage of information gathering and so therefore cannot be conclusive, we worry as to whether the prosecution of child sex offences and/or the human support necessary for victims and their families are being dealt with satisfactorily. We question whether resources are adequate, and whether sufficient attention is paid to the important details of these cases. And it is precisely resources and attention that are important here in ensuring that these matters are faced squarely in the face!
3. GGR will continue to campaign for sex abuse to be taken seriously by the authorities. In the coming months we will be informing the public of other actions and measures in this regard. Information on those will be made available at the appropriate time.
Charles Trico (Age of Consent):
GGR’s campaign to equalise Gibraltar’s sexual Age of Consent is well-known. We believe that Equality requires the elimination of disparities of treatment between citizens. We particularly believe this is necessary in situations of consent.
That Gibraltar law should STILL state that a heterosexual person may enter a relationship at the age of 16 but that if that person happens to be gay they will be considered to be a criminal is frankly totally unacceptable in this day and age.
GGR has always been clear on this matter: we advocate Equality. It is this Equality which is at issue on this matter. It is for Government, however, to determine the manner in which Equality is to be provided on this matter. Let us be quite clear: GGR has never at any point spoken of specific ages at any time. In our campaigning we do not presume to exercise the role of Government, but that of a campaigning NGO in this community. Let us be equally clear on another matter: a paedophile is a paedophile, and rape is rape no matter who does it! And the full weight of the law must be felt in such cases. The issues GGR addresses involve consensual relations only. And it is consent that is the key!
1. We consider the issue of Age of Consent to be one important factor in the overall Equality Equation.
2. To this end, we consider it fundamental that any new Gibraltar Constitution should address the blanket requirement for Equality and Human Rights for the gay and lesbian community. And we have made our thoughts clearly known to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe.
3. The issue of Age of Consent is fundamental in the fight to bring light to where currently there is darkness. Young people should not be made to feel inferior or be required to remain hidden from view for fear of the law when it comes to the matter of Love in their lives.
4. Age of Consent is the OTHER side of the coin to another issue: Abuse of young people. It is by fixing legal ages in Equality that we can most easily avoid young people becoming prey to predatory adults. This is vital to understand!
We will be raising questions on the failure of the Gibraltar Government to equalise the age of consent legislation in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement of 2003 in the case of L & V v Austria. These questions will be directed to both the European Council and the European Commission and will be tabled in the European Parliament.
Susan Haywood: (Community)
Equality is a reality that does not yet fully exist. Since equality does not yet fully exist, it is not reflected in the Society around us. We do not know what it feels like as we have not experienced it. Equality is a base from which all citizens of modern-day democracies draw their dignity and their strength. Human qualities are possessed by all. Equality is the responsibility of all.
In a British Gibraltar which has recently celebrated its 301st Anniversary as well as National Day, it is somewhat paradoxical that I should have to be here to announce that this organisation – faced with a wholly inadequate response from the Gibraltar Government – is currently studying the option of complaining directly to the European Commission regarding the situation of British residents in Gibraltar.
The facts are these: all citizens of the European Union have the fundamental right to freedom of movement within the Union. That includes being able to go to another EC Member State to work and reside. EC law clearly stipulates that there must be no nationality discrimination in any Member State towards any other Member State citizen. This, then, is the legal situation.
Gibraltar, ofcourse, is a small country with limited resources. That is the reason why in the conditions for Gibraltar’s inclusion in the Accession of the UK to the EC one special clause made an exception of arrangements regarding the Common Agricultural Policy, customs and VAT. It may well be that the Gibraltar Government feels that MORE exceptions should be made. If that is the case, it is for the Gibraltar Government to deal with that issue openly using all political and legal means available to it.
WHAT CANNOT HAPPEN is that on the one hand Gibraltar claims its right to participate in the EC’s democratic process by submitting a case to the European Court of Human Rights, but on the other it looks the other way when it comes to providing the rights to freedom of movement which the EC Treaty and other EC legislation says are “musts”.
Once we have completed our legal assessment, any Complaint submitted by this Organisation to the European Commission will detail some of these points. In particular, the fact that despite EC law requiring Member State citizens residing in another Member State to be able to participate in local housing lists, we have found British UK citizens in Gibraltar are faced with bureaucratic obstacles in the way of individuals claiming this right contrary to the spirit of EC law. Furthermore, the conditions for application to new paid housing via the Waterport Terraces project clearly stipulate prior inclusion on the Housing Lists – thereby making the insult double!
The achievement of equality is not optional and we at GGR are concerned with Equality for all. We are heartened to find less and less people willing to keep silent and passive when faced with situations which cause indignity. We will continue to press on this matter and we need your support. Write to us at PO Box 425 and we will be happy to attend to your particular situation.
Martin Snape (Disability/Age):
How many decades behind the times is Gibraltar? In a Europe concerned with not just the theoretical rights of the disabled, but one in which the practical everyday realities are more and more the concern and day-to-day workload of Ministries and specialised organisations, Gibraltar still will not recognise IN LAW that the disabled are all who are disabled NOT ONLY at birth but at any time during a lifetime. Gibraltar’s law STILL today in the 21st Century only recognises disability when it is something suffered at birth! GGR has been calling for YEARS for Government to change the law to recognise disability whenever it occurs. AND YES: we are STILL waiting for this Government to pay attention and actually DO something in this respect!
We are, similarly, STILL waiting for the Chief Minister to deliver on his promise to introduce the provisions on disability and age contained in the Equal Opportunities Ordinance 2003. Yes, we know that TECHNICALLY Government has until December 2006 to introduce those provisions. Yet was it not the Chief Minister himself who, in debate in the House of Assembly, at the time of the passing of the Equal Opportunities Ordinance in 2003 who said he would be pushing for those provisions on age and disability to be implemented ahead of time? We very much fear that Mr Caruana will have to eat his words if he carries on like this!
As GGR Coordinator on Age and Disability, I cannot place enough emphasis on the importance of understanding the link between age and disability. Disability affects not only those who we would label DISABLED, it affects a very wide cross-section of the public. Reports from well-known UK campaigning organisation AGE CONCERN pinpoint the link: the vast majority of those affected by disability are also elderly. Fractures, weak bones, falls are some of the major contributors to the way disability is linked to age.
But there is also another age disability: attitudes to age itself! Employers look at people beyond 35 or 40 as, perhaps, no longer desirable as employees. How many Gibraltarians in the unemployed lists are over that premature “age limit”, left on the unemployed or unemployable heap? This attitude must change on the part of society at large and on the part of employers in particular. We must see in the more mature employee a resource, a background of experience and skills which provide benefits which perhaps younger people might not bring, though they too compensate in other ways. In short, however, it is generalised prejudice on a particular issue which is unacceptable.
In the coming months, I will be carrying out a survey of the impact of the environment upon people with disability. I’m talking about the issue of ACCESS: once this assessment is complete the findings will be making public the state of play in a Gibraltar which more and more is concerned with looking good, we will be reporting on just HOW good it looks from a wheelchair.