THE HONOURABLE FREDERICK A. MITCHELL
HONORARY CONSULAR CORPS LUNCHEON
14 DECEMBER 2016
Greetings, This annual address to the Honorary Consular Corps is something that I have come to look forward to each year and I thank you for inviting me.
The Foreign Ministry has had a successful year.
When I spoke during Diplomatic Week in October, I referred to my remarks as my valedictory statement as Minister of Foreign Affairs for this term. This is the case today in this address.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration set for itself an ambitious agenda for 2016, which reflected the cyclical work that we do on an annual basis and at the same time reflected non-cyclical work consisting of several initiatives, our objective to forge new diplomatic ties, sign various agreements and establish the Foreign Service on a firm footing. There were a few issues that were unforeseen and we dealt with them in a resolute manner. Furthermore, the relationship with the resident Diplomatic Corps and the Honorary Consular Corps played a pivotal role in helping us achieve our objectives.
I take this opportunity publically to thank Parliamentary Secretary Cleola Hamilton, High Commissioner Picewell Forbes, Permanent Secretary Ambassador Sheila Carey, Director General Ambassador Sharon Brennen-Haylock and the Senior Managers of the Ministry for the leadership they provided during the year. The technical staff of the Ministry, the ranks of which grew by five persons this year, also played a crucial role. Moreover, the Heads of our overseas offices and their staff, as well as our Honorary Consuls in various countries around the world contributed and did their part.
The cyclical work of the Ministry included participation in the annual conclaves and related meetings of organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the United Nations (UN). One might well ask what is the value of participating annually in these meetings that often seem to be nothing but “talk shops”. However, the policy agenda setting role of these bodies is critical to achieve the more substantive, tangible outcomes that are needed for economic and sustainable development.
In all of the policy setting meetings in which I have participated this year, there were several key messages that I, along with like-minded Foreign Ministers, repeatedly stressed. This included, for example, the importance of not using per capita GNP as a measurement of wealth; this tool is particularly detrimental for small countries like The Bahamas and prevents us from accessing loans and grants to assist with our development plans.
Another important message, stressed by me and other Foreign Ministers concerned correspondent banking and de-risking. As mentioned in my statement to the 71st UNGA this year, banks in the developed world, principally in the United States, are refusing to cash the cheques of some Caribbean banks because they say the risk of policing the CARICOM banks on the issue of compliance to the new rules is too high and the business which they get is too low. Thus the services have been stripped across the Caribbean, affecting valuable remittances to folks back home or the payment of school fees of Caribbean students abroad. The Bahamas, indeed no CARICOM country, shields anyone involved in unlawful behavior, so the fear brought about by de-risking is unwarranted. In similar vein, notwithstanding the strong regulatory measures we have in place to comply with the provisions of the OECD and others, we continue to face attacks against our financial sector, battling pejorative expressions like tax havens and money-laundering and the imposition of unfair rules and sanctions. It is an ongoing battle where we continuously stress the need to have a level playing field.
I also took the opportunity in these fora to stress the importance of the empowerment of youth and gender equality. We will fail to achieve any of our development goals and objectives if we fail to harness the skills and talents of young people and women.
Finally, at the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties since the historic climate agreement in Paris, which entered into force 4 November, I found it necessary to send a strong message, stressing the importance of sticking to the Paris Agreement as the best hope of saving small countries such as The Bahamas. As said by the Prime Minister during diplomatic week, with 80 per cent of our land within five feet or 3 metres of the sea, the sea level rise threatens our every existence. This is no time to question whether climate change is real or not, or to say that it is a hoax, or to get into polemics about whether it is mitigation or adaptation. We need only look around us to see tangible evidence of the adverse impact every day. The devastation of hurricanes Joaquin and Matthew are concrete examples of storms that have become increasingly frequent and powerful as a result of global warming. I stated at the meeting that the commitments to the Green Climate Fund should be honoured, that GDP per capita must not be used to eliminate The Bahamas for consideration for development assistance and the Executive Secretariat of UNFCC must provide the funding for small-island developing states to get to these meetings.
The policy work that the Ministry undertakes to support recent important development initiatives such as the transformative 2030 Agenda, Financing for Development, the SAMOA Pathway for Small Island Developing States and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is undergirded with the close working relationship we have with the crafters of our own National Development Plan, where every effort is being made to ensure its full alignment with the 2030 Agenda.
Our usual work included the successful holding of Diplomatic Week, notwithstanding the ravages of Hurricane Matthew, support to other Ministries in their work, provision of Protocol assistance to conferences such as the IDB, CICAD and ICAN 2016, the appointment of new envoys from some 15 countries and the appointment of 3 Honorary Consuls in The Bahamas, to all of whom I extend congratulations. Par for the course in the work of the Ministry is the sending of messages of condolence on the demise of world leaders or for unforeseen events and tragedies, or messages of congratulations for national days, the election of Presidents, changes in Governments and the appointments of Foreign Ministers. One such message of particular significance this year concerned the outcome of the Haitian Presidential elections. As we all know these elections suffered many setbacks during the year, and, along with the rest of the global community, The Bahamas was gratified to see them finally take place in October; this was particularly meaningful given the devastation and loss experienced by Haiti during Hurricane Matthew. We were pleased to participate in the CARICOM Electoral Observer Mission. As of now the results are still preliminary, but I sent my personal congratulations to Jovenel Moise, who commanded the majority of votes.
Patrolling our waters for security purposes and the prevention of irregular migration and poaching is a constant. An unfortunate event transpired early November when some 50 fishermen of the Dominican Republic poaching in the Exclusive Economic Zone of The Bahamas sought to elude arrest and detention by the RBDF. The Captain of one of the vessels rammed the Defense Force vessel opening a hole in the hull. Fortunately, the hole was above the waterline of the patrol vessel and so it remained afloat and no RBDF officer was hurt. One vessel was seized and the remaining five vessels got away. We sent a Note to the Government of the Dominican Republic outlining the incident and expressing to them our concern that incidents such as these are continuing. We are still seeking to bring to justice those who escaped. During 2017 we aim seek to conclude our negotiations on a cooperation agreement with the Government of the Dominican Republic to prevent the continuation of these acts.
With respect to non cyclical work, this year, the Director General, Ms Sharon Brennen-Haylock, assumed office in January. Ambassador Paul “Andy” Gomez presented credentials to the Head of State of China early in the year and assumed his duties in Beijing. Ambassador Donaldson presented his credentials to the Emperor of Japan and will be non-resident in Nassau, and Ambassador Tony Joudi also presented credentials to the respective authorities in Qatar and UAE, and will carry out his duties from Nassau. In the case of the UAE, Expo 2020 will take place in Dubai and work has commenced aggressively to prepare for The Bahamas’ participation in the Expo. A new Chief of Protocol, Ms Kerry Bonamy, was appointed. DPS Donna Lowe was appointed Director of Training of the Foreign Service, and I expect to have in place early 2016 the Foreign Service Training Institute, even if only in embryonic form. The Department of the Foreign Service is established and in the coming days this will be consolidated with the implementation of the new Career Path and Salary Scale of Foreign Service Officers.
The work of the Foreign Service is not well understood by many, so the Ministry made a commitment to improve communication, both internal and external, and for this purpose we launched a new website and increased activity on the Face Book Page, on both of which the majority of our work is posted in real time, or as quickly as possible. Internally we created a publication called the Week Ahead which keeps us abreast of all that is being done throughout the service. In the coming days the Communications Division of the Ministry will be established, with a Director to be appointed soon. We also resolved to respond more quickly to inquiries coming from you and others. While we may not have been as successful as we intended, I think it is safe to say we have gotten better at receiving our response rate to the hundreds of messages we receive weekly.
We finally concluded discussion on the FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement which deals with Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing; I was pleased to hand deliver the Instrument of Accession to the FAO Director General in September during the 71st UN General Assembly. Related to this is the United States’ Safe Ocean Network, a global initiative aimed at combating all aspects of the fight against illegal fishing, which The Bahamas also joined. During the Assembly, I also signed the Hamilton Declaration on the protection of the Sargasso Sea. We also concluded discussion on the APIS legislation, another pillar to assist with safety and security in air travel, and it has now been gazetted. We forged with the UAE bi-lateral agreements on political cooperation and to waive visas for our respective nationals; the visa waiver will come into force 30 days from the date of signature. Just last week we concluded a successful round of technical talks with Cuba on migration, resulting in agreement on an updated Memorandum of Understanding, which we expect to sign by the end of January 2017.
In keeping with our commitment to strengthen our presence abroad, we have submitted an application for observer status with the African Union (AU), where we await its decision and we have commenced the process to establish consular offices in Doha, Qatar and Dubai UAE. Processes also are underway to expand the remit of some of our resident Ambassadors – Ambassador Gomez’s will soon be accredited to a number of other countries in Asia; Ambassador Jackson in Geneva will soon be accredited to Switzerland, Belgium and the EU/ACP and High Commissioner Bethel in London presented his credentials in South Africa and Sweden.
Approval was given by the Cabinet for The Bahamas to establish new diplomatic relations with 23 countries; to date we have formally established relations with Mongolia, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam and Seychelles, and will soon do so with Turkmenistan. The remaining agreements will be signed during the course of 2018.
I have sought to include young people in the work of the Ministry as much as possible, and was pleased to see, after a one-year hiatus, the involvement of youth in foreign relations with the resumption of the Model United Nations, the victors of which joined me at the United Nations this year and were present to hear the National Statement presented on 26th September, 2016. Also present was the winner of the annual Zonta essay completion. The Shadow Foreign Minister and his wife also joined me at the UN. High school students participated in the Sir Sidney Poitier Essay Competition, where the winner, Ms Kristlyn Burrows, received a cash prize and had the singular opportunity, along with her mother, to travel with me to Los Angeles to meet Sir Sidney. Ms Kadijah Young, CARICOM Youth Ambassador and UB student, joined Minister Fitzgerald and the delegation participating in the 50th Anniversary of the Independence of Barbados.
A highlight of 2016 was the election of a distinguished Bahamian national to a high office within the United Nations. Ms. Marion Bethel, was elected in an expert capacity to serve on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), May of this year where she will join other global experts to advance women’s empowerment and gender equality worldwide. Also, the UN Secretary General extended the appointment of our own Justice Burton Hall to serve an additional term on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I extend congratulations to Ms Bethel and Justice Hall, and hold them up as examples of what is possible for all Bahamians, especially young men and women.
In the realm of the unexpected – this year we were faced with challenges to properties we own overseas. In NY, after a very cold spell, the pipes burst in the Chancery causing severe water damage; fortunately, no staff member was injured. This resulted in several months of extensive and expensive repair to get the building into an operable state. I had the pleasure to rededicate the newly renovated building while I was in NY in September. A small fire occurred at the Chancery in London, where again fortunately no staff member was injured, and while the damage was minimal it served to highlight several problem areas that have to be addressed. Both the residence and Chancery in Washington, DC are in need of extensive repair, as well as the residences in London and Canada. This all serves to highlight that if we are to own property we have to see their maintenance and upkeep as something which we have to include in each budget, and not just wait until a problem occurs. We have put in place a building superintendent to serve NY and DC, and will most probably have to do the same for other locales where we own property.
Turning now to a policy issue, September of this year the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association, on behalf of Save the Bays and five petitioners filed a claim against the Government and requested precautionary measures form the Inter American Human Rights Commission (IACHR). Unfortunately, while the Government was in the process of investigating the claims in order to send a comprehensive report to the IACHR, the petitioners were able to convince the Commission that their lives were in danger and the precautionary measures were issued early November. The Government ultimately submitted its response on time to the Commission, showing that not only that there was no basis for the claims made by the petitioners, but in fact the petitioners also refused to cooperate with the police to show how their lives were in danger. Ours is a vibrant and strong democracy. “The Government in its response to the Commission reaffirmed the importance it attaches to the protection of and respect for the human rights of all of its citizens. Furthermore, the Government will take the necessary action by the State agencies to continue to monitor the situation with respect to the Petitioners and take pre-emptive action if required to not only ensure their safety, but to continue to provide an environment in which they are free to continue their work as environmental/human rights advocates.”
I have given only a flavor of the work in which the Ministry has been engaged this year; but I think it gives you a good idea of the volume of what we have to deal with on a regular basis, both expected and un-expected. I expect 2017 to be equally if not more active than 2016.
We intend to have roll-out of the new Bahamas Passport in January 2017, for which the “digital signature” was issued on 6th December, 2016, to ensure the recognition of the validity of the passports to be used by Bahamians when they travel to the rest of the world and back, for their benefit and that of The Bahamas. Our annual cycle of meetings will begin early 2017 with the Intersesssional meeting of CARICOM Heads in Guyana, and Ministerial meeting of the ACS and CELAC. Early 2017 we will launch formally our campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, for the term 2019 – 20121. Some of the countries you represent have already said they will support us, and we hope to count on all your support. In the area of human rights The Bahamas has a good story to share with the rest of the world, and we expect to play an important role when we are elected. In the maritime area, we have launched our candidature for a seat in Category C of the IMO Council for the term 2018-2019. The elections will take place late 2017 and we look forward to your support. Our candidacies for both the IMO and the HRC have been endorsed by CARICOM. We will continue to establish relations with the countries already approved and to seek relations with others, already in the pipeline is Oman. We will seek to sign general consultation, air services, visa waiver, double taxation and investment agreements with a number of countries, already in the pipeline are Qatar, UAE and others. Several new envoys will present credentials during 2017, hopefully, one of them will be a new US Ambassador.
Finally, on 16 January, I will give a free public lecture at the University of The Bahamas, So you want to be a Foreign Minister, I extend an invitation to all of you to attend.
In 2017 we will have a new US Administration, with whom we expect to have cordial and friendly relations as we did with all previous US governments. The impact of Brexit on our economy is more clear than before; we are cautiously optimistic but it still remains to be seen. We are watching carefully and doing our analyses on soon to be held elections in a number of European countries. The Ministry has worked and will continue to work closely with our colleagues in the financial sector to ensure its protection.
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas, with islands spanning over nearly 6,000 square miles and a population of some 450,000 persons, is as important as any large nation, and we have the right to sit at the table with such countries to discuss what is in the best interest of our citizens. Whatever our size in international relations we are promised that each country has one vote and one voice; sometimes, we have to fight to remind our developed partners of this, but for the most part it works. We will continue to work for justice, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights in world free from fear and want.
Permit me, before closing, to mark the passing of an iconic world leader, whose stature and influence is unparalleled in this era. I speak of former President Fidel Castro, whose memorial service I had the honour to attend as Head of The Bahamas delegation. I joined hundreds of thousands of persons in Revolution Square in Havana and witnessed firsthand the outpouring of love, admiration and gratitude towards him. Once again, I extend heartfelt condolences to the government and people of Cuba and also to thank President Castro for his support and friendship to The Bahamas.
In closing, I hope you will be able to join me and the staff of the Ministry 22 December at the Christmas on the Bay concert to which you have all been invited. I wish to thank each and every one of you for your cooperation during 2016 and I look forward to your continued support during 2017. May you and your loved ones have a wonderful Christmas and the fulfillment of your dreams and aspirations in 2017.