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Concern over new line-up at HRC

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A clear-out of human rights watchdogs has sparked concern about continuity at the anti-discrimination body.

Tawana Tannock, the former chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, said she was worried important work could “fall between the cracks” if every board member was replaced.

A fresh team of 12 was expected to be named today.

It is understood that none of the new appointments have served on the Human Rights Commission before.

The decision to appoint a new board was made despite applications from a handful of sitting members last November.

Ms Tannock's fears were backed by her former deputy chairman, while others claimed the last board was surprised that none of them were reselected.

One source said: “Whether political or not, I have no clue, but obviously one wonders.”

The HRC was set up to oversee the application of the Human Rights Act for all Bermuda residents and provides a way to resolve complaints related to areas such as sexual harassment or disability.

It is made up of between five and 12 people, appointed by an independent selection committee for terms that last up to three years. The previous group of commissioners included four people on their second stint, after they were first appointed to the 2013-15 board and returned for 2016-18.

It was thought at least four of those appointed in 2016 reapplied for the new group of commissioners, but none were successful.

Ms Tannock, who did not reapply, said: “In the private sector, the wholesale replacement of a governance board is virtually unheard of.

“If there is no continuity on the board, there is a real risk that in transitioning to a new board, governance issues, organisational goals and ongoing matters that require the board's attention may fall between the cracks or suffer from lack of a consistent approach.”

She explained that, based on her own experience of sitting on several boards, including two terms on the HRC, it was “integral to any organisation to have some continuity at the board level, especially a governance board that is accountable to the public for use of government funds and fulfilling a legislative mandate”.

Ms Tannock added: “When the HRC commissioners were only involved in adjudication of complaints, education and advocacy of human rights, there still should have been some continuity, but the need would not have been as great as it is now that the board effectively has oversight of the management of the organisation.”

John Hindess, who served as deputy chairman until December, said he agreed “wholeheartedly”.

He said yesterday: “If there was not one returning commissioner from the old commission, that would be a grave concern. Continuity on boards is very important; it just makes common sense.”

Mr Hindess applied to be chairman for the new term but was informed last month that he was unsuccessful.

He said: “I really valued my work on the commission and I wanted to continue it. I felt there was a lot of unfinished business in Bermuda for human rights protection.”

Mr Hindess added: “It's also concerning that there still hasn't been a commission publicly appointed yet and we're on March 19 — that's very concerning.”

Another well-placed source said: “I am shocked that we are two-and-a-half months without a new set of commissioners.”

It is understood that the first quarter, which ends in 11 days, would be used to set out plans for the rest of the year.

The source added that this also meant no commissioners were in place to oversee HRC operations, judge complaints or carry out other requirements outlined in the legislation.

It appeared new commissioners were announced in March or April in previous years.

The selection process was opened to the public for the first time for the 2013 intake and more than 70 applications were received for the latest posts.

Amendments made to the Act in 2012 provided that a selection and appointment committee would be made up of a head, who can be chosen by the government minister responsible for the HRC, one representative each recommended by the Premier and the Opposition Leader, and two members of the public chosen by the head of the committee.

The legislation said that the minister would consult with the HRC executive officer and the department responsible for human rights to determine the criteria for choosing commissioners.

Jens Juul, who served two terms from 2013 to 2018, said: “If there is no continuity, I would be surprised.”

An annual report released last July showed that in 2017 the commission received 112 complaints and managed 23 investigations — a quarter of which involved racial discrimination.

Ms Tannock said in January, after she stepped down, that the same-sex marriage row was the most difficult subject she had tackled over her six years in office. During that period, same-sex marriage became legal, was banned again and then legalised once more.

The Government will attempt to ban it again through an appeal to London's Privy Council.

The HRC supported legal recognition of rights for same-sex couples, but Ms Tannock felt “disheartened” over a lack of clear leadership for Bermuda on what should be done to safeguard the rights of some citizens.

She also called at the time for extra legislation to protect the independence of human rights commissioners.

Ms Tannock said that the HRC had experienced no political interference during her two terms. The HRC did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Raising concern: Tawana Tannock, former chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission
Serious concerns: John Hindess, former Human Rights Commission deputy chairman (File photograph)

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Published March 20, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated March 20, 2019 at 7:51 am)

Concern over new line-up at HRC

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