In a letter released today, Human Rights Watch and CEJIL (the Center for Justice and International Law) urged Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Basdeo Panday to reconsider withdrawing from the American Convention on Human Rights.

Trinidad and Tobago justified its decision as an effort to minimize the cruel and unusual punishment suffered by death row inmates spending more than five years awaiting the imposition of their sentence. The government argued that by withdrawing from the Convention, and thereby eliminating an avenue for appeal, death sentences would be imposed more swiftly.

"Unfortunately, as political support has grown in the English- speaking Caribbean for taking a 'tough' stand on crime, several governments have expressed interest in applying the death penalty without the constraints imposed by international human rights standards,"" said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.

Viviana Krsticevic, co-executive director of CEJIL stated, "If Trinidad and Tobago's government is worried about inhumane treatment on death row, it should be even more worried about the ultimate inhumane penalty - the death sentence."

By withdrawing its ratification of the American Convention, Trinidad and Tobago has indicated an unwillingness to protect fundamental human rights and to accept international scrutiny of its human rights practices.

Human Rights Watch and CEJIL stressed that Trinidad and Tobago's decision restricted the rights of all victims of human rights abuse to the protections offered by the inter-American human rights system. The American Convention protects fundamental rights, including the freedoms of conscience, expression, and association, and the rights to participate in government and to a fair trial. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigates abuses alleged under the Convention.

Human Rights Watch noted that it had worked closely and effectively with Trinidad and Tobago on a draft statute for the proposed International Criminal Court (ICC). Trinidad and Tobago's withdrawal from the Convention detracted from the country's position as a leading and respected contributor to the ICC drafting process.

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Washington, D.C., Tuesday, June 2, 1998
Prime Minister Basdeo Panday
Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Port of Spain, Trinidad
BY FAX: 868-627-3444

Honorable Prime Minister:

We are writing to express our profound regret that on May 26, 1998, your government withdrew its ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights. Your decision denies the Trinidadian and Tobagan citizenry the broad range of human rights protections that are enshrined in the Convention and actively promoted through the work of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The withdrawal of ratification will take effect one year from the date of notification. Rather than embrace participation in this highly respected regional human rights body, your action reveals an unwillingness to endorse fundamental human rights principles and to subject your government's human rights practices to international scrutiny. We urge you to reconsider your withdrawal before it takes effect.

In his May 26 letter to OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, Foreign Minister Ralph Maraj invoked the 1994 Pratt and Morgan case - in which Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London ruled that death row prisoners held for longer than five years had been subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment - to justify expediting appeals "by the elimination of delays within the system." However, your decision to eliminate an avenue of appeal entirely clearly contradicts the spirit of the Pratt and Morgan decision (which requires the commutation of the death sentence in such cases to life imprisonment). Rather than lower the risk that death row prisoners face inhuman treatment, your action has heightened the risk that death row inmates might be wrongly subjected to the most severe punishment, the irrevocable penalty of death.

Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental human rights organization, opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. Furthermore, we believe that it is often carried out in a discriminatory manner and that the inherent fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons are sometimes executed. Because an execution is irreversible, such miscarriages of justice can never be corrected. For these reasons, Human Rights Watch opposes all executions under law, irrespective of the crime and the legal process leading to its implementation.

While your government has expressed frustration with the pace of death penalty cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), your recent action overreaches in seeking a remedy for this concern and restricts the rights of all victims of human rights abuse to access the protections offered by the inter-American human rights system. With this dramatic step, your government has rescinded all of the Convention's broad civil and political rights protections, including the freedoms of conscience, expression and association, and the right to a fair trial. Ironically, the Convention allows the application of the death penalty (but does not allow its extension to new crimes and requires that death row prisoners be permitted to apply for amnesties and commutations).

We are concerned that as political support has grown in the English-speaking Caribbean for taking a "tough" stand on crime, several governments have expressed greater interest in applying the death penalty without the constraints imposed by international human rights treaties and the Privy Council. We are aware that your government also has considered withdrawing from the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Such a step would leave Trinidadian and Tobagan citizens without recourse to the world's and region's most prominent and effective international human rights bodies. We urge you to do all in your power to stem movement in the Caribbean to undermine support for international human rights standards.

The Jamaican government's decisions in the past year to withdraw from the First Optional Protocol (in October 1997) and its issuance of instructions to the Inter-American Commission imposing severe time restrictions on its responses to Jamaican cases were grave blows to Jamaican citizens' rights and to international human rights protections.

Human Rights Watch has had the opportunity to work closely with your government in the process of elaborating a draft statute for the proposed International Criminal Court. Trinidad and Tobago has played a leading and constructive role in that process. We regret that your recent decision to withdraw from the American Convention has detracted from your important contributions to the development of an effective International Criminal Court. We encourage your government to rethink this unfortunate decision before it enters into effect.