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Mental healthcare boost — Commission

Human Rights Commision chairman Michael Hanson

The work of the Human Rights Commission could move ahead at three times its present speed now that it can step out from under the purview of the Bermuda Government.

Michael Hanson, the HRC’s outgoing chairman who is finishing his term after three years on the job, expressed his delight at the Throne Speech announcement that the commission would get greater autonomy.

“The idea of moving away from being a part of the ministry and having that independence, similar to other jurisdictions, is fantastic — everything we are doing now can be doubled or tripled,” Mr Hanson told The Royal Gazette. “The idea is great, and I hope it will be welcomed by both parties. It was the Progressive Labour Party who changed the Act and enabled commissioners to come into play. That’s allowed us to lobby the Government, and so this move is very positive.”

The change, one of several moves towards better mental healthcare outlined in the Throne Speech, means the HRC is likely to relocate from its premises in the Mechanics Building on Church Street.

Mr Hanson also reflected on another significant victory, as the Government pledged to include mental health under the Human Rights Act.

“We’re still waiting for the actual definition they are going to use,” he said. “That’s critical. But once it’s in force and unlawful, then the stigma can be attacked, and that’s always been the main driver.

“It allows people to start talking about it without fear. I was very happy with the reaction or lack of a reaction. Whenever human rights are brought up in Bermuda, we tend to have a quite visceral reaction on both sides when it comes to issues like sexual orientation, race, national origin. Whenever we try to address these issues, the polarisation is rapid. It has been a very difficult juggling act for this first group of commissioners.

“I’m very, very happy to see the Government addressing mental health. But I would say that it’s step one in a process.”

However, some Bermudians have questioned whether human rights laws will be used to curtail freedom of speech.

Amendments proposed in the Throne Speech include outlawing discrimination expressed online, and broadening the law against publication of “racist material and racial incitement” to include “recorded telephone discussions, internet, e-mails recorded in print or recorded on the internet, radio, television or any other electronic medium of communication”.

During Friday’s debate in the House of Assembly, Opposition MP Rolfe Commissiong expressed concern over the possible implications for free speech. “We are on the watch here,” he told Parliament. “We are on guard.”

Members of the HRC appeared on a local radio talk show and fielded questions from listeners concerned that there were designs at play to restrict public discourse.

“It was interesting that what came up on the Sherri J show was the right to freedom of speech,” Mr Hanson said.

“There was some misunderstanding. This is not about stopping freedom of speech, which is a cornerstone of human rights. It’s about protecting people from discrimination and harassment.”

Three years after Mr Hanson took the helm, the HRC has forged ahead as a quasi-judicial organisation with the power to call tribunals and hear complaints. A law passed in October 2012 under the PLP government allowed for an independent select committee to interview and appoint human rights commissioners able to adjudicate.

There are nine written judgments at present waiting to go up on the HRC’s new website, so that the public will be able to see how the commissioners have reasoned their decisions under the law.

Mr Hanson came into the job hoping to outlaw “discrimination by association”, by which an individual could be targeted for links to another person or group.

At the time, Mr Hanson pulled no punches on the Island’s comparatively complacent attitude toward human rights, telling The Royal Gazette that a modern and sophisticated small jurisdiction ought to stand ahead of the curve.

“Bermuda should be at the forefront of human rights development,” he told this newspaper in April 2013. “In reality, we fall short.”

Discrimination by association “still causes a lot of strife” and remains to be tackled, Mr Hanson said.

The Throne Speech, read by the Governor, George Fergusson, also included pledges to push towards establishing a mental health court and identify a forensic psychiatric unit.