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Barbudans call on Commonwealth leaders to address human rights injustices, failing democracy in wake of Hurricane Irma

17 April 2018

Leslie Thomas QCMarc Willers QCThalia MaraghTihomir Mak

Leslie Thomas QCMarc Willers QCThalia Maragh and Tihomir Mak are representing Barbudans in this case and are members of the Garden Court Chambers International Team.

Plea for support for access to essential services on island; demand consultation on controversial land grab legislation set to destroy Barbudan culture, communal land system, and ecologically sensitive lands.

Legal proceedings underway to challenge changes to Barbuda Land Act, 2007 and passage of Paradise Found Act that allows DeNiro resort project.

London, United Kingdom, Tuesday, April 17, 2018 – As global leaders gather in London this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, residents from Barbuda and diaspora from the UK, United States, and Canada are asking participants to hold their peer Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, accountable for hostile actions his government has undertaken against the Barbudan population and failure to uphold both basic democratic values as laid out in the Commonwealth Charter and human rights standards of the 21st century.

Barbuda maintains a centuries old communal land system protected by the Barbuda Land Act 2007. Through their communal land rights, Barbudans are committed to a unique culture and heritage as stewards of the economy and protectors and responsible cultivators of the island of Barbuda. Still reeling from the effects of Category 5 Hurricane Irma seven months ago, Barbudans are calling on the leaders of the Commonwealth to address their government’s actions, including:

  1. Inhumane treatment of the Barbudan population, including lack of action to ensure access to the basic necessities of life and essential services, including running water and electricity; and failure to prioritize the resettlement of the Barbudan population, and in effect the reunification of their community, back onto the island after the hurricane;
  2. Lack of transparency and accountability in the collection and planned use of funds from around the world designated for hurricane recovery;
  3. Ongoing assault on Barbuda’s historical land rights enshrined in law and accorded to Barbudans under the Barbuda Land Act 2007; and,
  4. Undemocratic actions and processes, including failing to consult Barbudans, as required by law, in both its introduction and passage of legislation (December 2018) that will significantly alter the integrity of the Barbuda Land Act (i.e. removing communal land rights, redefining the definition of Barbudan); and requiring Barbudans to effectively abandon their island to travel to sister island Antigua for the second time since the hurricane in order to exercise their democratic right to vote in the general election in March 21. Note: Immediately after the general election March 21, the government signaled it will move quickly to repeal the full Barbuda Land Act.

“It is unacceptable in this day and age that we have a population in the Commonwealth being treated as they are and a government functioning the way it is. It’s time for the international community to stop condoning these actions with their own silence and inaction, or risk the appearance of being complicit,” said Leslie Thomas QC, Joint-Head of Garden Court Chambers based in London, who is representing Barbudans.

Reflecting on the theme of this year’s leaders’ conference “Towards a Common Future”, Thomas offers: “As citizens of the Commonwealth, we remember histories among us of similar acts against small, culturally distinct populations. Is it now time to act together to break down this collective legacy once and for all, to begin sharing our lessons learned and encourage a spirit of reconciliation to prevent further injustices among us? If we as Commonwealth nations are unable to get this right, what rights do we have as Commonwealth nations?”

Barbudans will continue to explore all legal avenues available to address the challenges placed before them. Legal proceedings are currently underway to challenge both the government’s move to bypass the Barbuda Land Act, 2007 in order to pass the Paradise Found Act that would allow U.S. movie star Robert De Niro to proceed with investment projects on Barbuda, and the governments steps to repeal the Barbuda Land Act, ending communal land rights and paving the way for private development to the exclusion of Barbudans.

Barbuda-UK Diaspora to Meet with Prime Minister Gaston Browne

Despite not meeting Barbudans on the island of Barbuda since Hurricane Irma to discuss issues to date, Prime Minister Gaston Browne has accepted a meeting with Barbudan diaspora while in London today at 4:30 p.m. GMT. At today’s meeting, the diaspora will unveil a 6 Point Action Plan for Democracy and Barbuda’s Sustainable Recovery that requests immediate action from the Government of Antigua and Barbuda on the following:

  1. Prioritization of government funds and resources for the immediate return of essential services, including access to running water and electricity, to all Barbudans who have returned to the island.
  2. Full disclosure to the people of Antigua and Barbuda and all contributing nations and partners through a formal report of all monies committed to date toward the recovery of Barbuda from the effects of Hurricane Irma, listed by organization(s), how much funding has been spent to date, and how it has been used, and details of plans for future use of all recovery funds.
  3. Direct access for Barbuda Council to an amount of funds committed for hurricane recovery that is agreed to by the Council and central government, whereby the Council will manage the use and disbursement of funds to be applied directly to recovery of homes and community facilities, in a way that respects Barbudans’ existing communal way of life.
  4. Full disclosure of and consultation with Barbudans on the plans for recovery of the island moving forward, including a formal plan with defined targets and timelines for reunification of the Barbuda population through resettlement of Barbudans currently on Antigua since the hurricane back onto Barbuda once again.
  5. Full disclosure of and consultation with Barbudans on the government’s intentions and proposed plans to change the Barbuda Land Act, 2007.
  6. Full disclosure of and consultation with Barbudans on any plans and partnerships underway for the development of Barbuda.

“Barbudans are on the brink of cultural extinction. Right now, our lands and way of life are being destroyed,” said Annette Henry, a member of the Barbuda diaspora in the United Kingdom. “We hope today’s meeting will signal a new relationship for Barbudans with their government – one that is based on meaningful and effective dialogue.”

Barbudans have regularly faced prejudicial comments directed by government officials, with the prime minister publicly referring to Barbudans after the hurricane as “deracinated imbeciles”, “dunce elements” and “squatters”.

International Community’s Role

Since the hurricane, Barbudans have observed a steady stream of dignitaries and representatives from international governance organizations to the region to assess the hurricane damage and confirm commitments to the recovery. Yet to date, Barbudans on the island live in homes without access to running water or connection to the electricity grid (in January the government upgraded the island’s electrical grid system leaving the majority of Barbudans without means to connect to the supply).

“Make no mistake, our government is doing everything in its power to ensure that Barbudans do not succeed in our recovery through our traditional communal way of life,” said John Mussington, resident of Barbuda and co-founder of Barbuda Silent No More. “We urgently need leadership that will ask the tough questions and help us find out where the money is really going. We’re calling on Commonwealth leaders, to assist in the prevention of further assaults on Barbudans’ basic human rights, our democracy and our attempts to recover during this extremely vulnerable time in our history.”

Barbudans are asking the international community to heed their concerns that the country’s democratic process is being undermined by the government of Antigua and Barbuda, and the urgent need for accountability of funds committed for the recovery of Barbuda.

#SaveOurBarbuda Campaign

Today, a group of Barbudans launch the #SaveOurBarbuda campaign as they strive to defend their culture and heritage, protect their land, and guard their communal way of life. The world showed them their support when their people survived one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history. They’re asking for their help again as they fight to save Barbuda. Join them at www.facebook.com/barbuda and #SaveOurBarbuda.

Leslie Thomas QCMarc Willers QCThalia Maragh and Tihomir Mak are representing Barbudans in this case and are members of the Garden Court Chambers International Team.

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