HRC changes will remove bias fears, says chairman
The new chairman of the Human Rights Commission says the impact of having independent commissioners will be “huge” for Bermuda and should eliminate the “constant fear” of bias felt by those complaining about discrimination.
Michael Hanson, who was appointed in March to lead the board for a three-year term, told
The Royal Gazette that legislative changes which came into effect last year have “fundamentally changed human rights in Bermuda”.
Grievances which can’t be resolved by the HRC are no longer dealt with by a board of inquiry appointed by a Government Minister but by a three-person tribunal, made up of commissioners.
Those commissioners are no longer political appointees but were appointed by an independent selection committee.
Mr Hanson told
The Royal Gazette: “It comes directly to me and I select three members from the 12 commissioners.
“There is no longer going to be [this concern of] ‘Do I know that person? Do I not know that person? Does the Minister not like me?’ It’s this constant fear.
“That has gone now. What we want is to help individuals see this is going to be professional, very efficient and very fair.”
Questions about the HRC’s efficiency in handling complaints were raised in Parliament last week by Opposition MP Michael Weeks, after the organisation’s annual reports for 2010 and 2011 were tabled by Community Minister Wayne Scott.
Mr Scott admitted there had been problems in the past but insisted: “Everything is being done now in a timely manner.” He did not respond to requests for further comment from this newspaper.
The HRC receives hundreds of queries every year, which it calls “intakes”, but only a fraction become full-scale human rights investigations and the Commission has nine months to complete those.
The annual reports show that 40 investigations were launched in 2009, 13 in 2010 and ten in 2011 but details on the outcomes are not provided. The highest number of investigations in any year over the last decade was 86, in 2003.
No information is given in the reports on how long it took the HRC to conduct any investigation since 2002.
Lawyer Mr Hanson said the new commission had four outstanding cases of alleged discrimination to tackle and setting up tribunals for them would be a priority.
He said the previous system “caused huge clogs” because it was often difficult to swiftly convene a board of inquiry from a selection pool of “40-odd” people.
“The Minister would have had discretion as to who to pick,” he added. “It was a very different system. The page has been turned. Effectively, I [now] decide who sits on these tribunals.”
The reports appear to show that the annual number of inquiries to the HRC has dropped by more than 50 percent, with just 270 queries from the public in 2011, compared to 587 in 2002.
But a spokeswoman explained that the big difference in the numbers was because a different system of reporting was implemented in 2009.
At that point, certain simple queries were no longer classified as “intakes” — hence why the number fell from 477 in 2008 to 210 the following year.
Further proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act, to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and partially prohibit discrimination on the grounds of age, were tabled in Parliament earlier this month.
Mr Hanson said, if approved, the changes could lead to many more complaints for the Commission to deal with, which would be no bad thing.
He speculated that those who felt discriminated against on the grounds of sexual discrimination or age “gave up on” reporting such incidents to the HRC, as it had no power to help them.
“Bermuda doesn’t have great protection,” he said. “It’s getting better.”
He added that as chairman he wanted to see a “completely transparent” HRC, with cases published on the organisation’s website and full disclosure on the investigations process.
The latest annual reports give limited information on the outcome of investigated complaints, listing only those that were dismissed, withdrawn, referred to a board of inquiry, or successfully mediated.
The ten investigations in 2011 involved complaints about discrimination based on race, place of origin, gender, marital status, disability and religion.
No cases that year were successfully mediated, three were withdrawn and three went to a board of inquiry.
Useful website: www.hrc.bm