Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Karen Cummings told foreign observers of Monday’s general and regional elections at a meeting last Thursday that she had been instructed to take away their accreditation if necessary but she objected, it has emerged.
“They said that if you had to take away their accreditation, do so, but I said no, we can’t do so,” Cummings can be heard saying in a more complete video than previously available of what had transpired during the meeting, which occurred at the Office of the Returning Officer for Region Four at High and Hadfield streets, Georgetown. It was not clear who “they” referred to.
Video that circulated on social media of the encounter had captured only a part of the interaction and showed that the observers, including Head of the Commonwealth observer mission, former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur, felt that they had been threatened by Cummings. After they raised these concerns, Cummings attempted to soften her comments. Government subsequently expressed regret over any “misunderstanding” of the comments made by the Foreign Affairs Minister.
In the more complete video seen by Stabroek News, when the meeting commenced, Cummings told the observers that she was on her way to another location when she decided to make a detour to tell them that she was happy she accredited their respective missions. However, she stated, given the tense situation Guyana is in, she wanted to caution them against making premature statements on behalf of the organisations they represent until the electoral process is complete. She said that it is no secret that the two major political parties were “fighting for the pie” but she thought that “good sense” would prevail and all she expected from them was responsible reporting.
“You’re representing an organisation so you have to report to it but I just hope that you will not have, for example, to say okay one side is not accepting the result or the other side. It’s not time for anybody to say that, so I just thought that umm… because I have been hearing from my colleagues and you know and now you saying everything is predictable but I’m just telling you what I feel. You should know that I don’t expect persons making premature statements and being prejudicial without having the facts or giving another side their voice before you actually have this side’s,” she said, before adding that is all she passed to say and hopes that “good sense” will prevail.
Further, the minister said, she understands that they will have to make statements to the media, especially when they put a mic in front of their faces expecting them to say something. “But I just hope good sense will prevail and there is responsible reporting and of course in Guyana, where everybody is tense because there’s a lot at stake, and we’re hoping that whatever you do is people-centred because its power to the people. And whatever it is, we abide by the results [which] hasn’t been declared as yet, it’s still outstanding. So to say something now is really premature in my own explanation so you wait until the end of it and then we see what it is and then you can make your reports saying these are the gaps they missed so I’m just passing by to say a word,” Cummings said.
‘First world versus third world’
After the minister completed her statement, British High Commissioner Greg Quinn said that the international observers are following a code of conduct and what she is suggesting is not accurate. “The suggestion that you are making that they would say something inappropriate is not accurate. These guys would not do that. In fact, your people are going around saying the same things. So you need to tell your people to keep it in control,” he said.
Cummings in response said that she just wanted to let them know, because there are persons releasing statements even though the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) had not. She added that she just wanted to ask them to be fair and that is why she passed by.
Arthur then uttered some words before saying that if she is asking them to exhibit good sense, he is assuring her that they will. He added that he had conducted an interview and stated that the electoral process was conducted freely and fairly but he was disappointed in the electoral system itself.
The minister defended the system saying that Guyana is a third world country. “I am saying that it is first world versus third world, it’s 50 years independence to 200 year independence. We are in a digital age now but it is a work in progress,” she said.
Guyana Bar Association observer Teni Housty subsequently stated that Cummings cannot use time and separation of supposed development as an excuse for Guyana. Arthur, he said, made a point. “There is a process and the process needs to work and this is our process, let our process work as simple as that and allow us to get on with it,” Housty said, while Quinn asked if it was appropriate for her to be conducting a meeting in the GECOM building.
Cummings admitted that it was not but stressed that she merely passed because she heard “something” which she did not want to repeat there for ethical reasons. “They said that if you had to take away their accreditation, do so, but I said no, we can’t do so, I said,” the minister managed to say before being interrupted by observers exclaiming, “What? What? What?”
Housty immediately said he thinks that Cummings should stop and directed her to the exit, saying that he suggests that she takes that route. Cummings agreed and got up from the chair saying, “I was just honestly telling what I heard, I was just saying that it was in my ears. I am saying that I wasn’t in agreement with that,” she said.
Arthur is then heard saying “What I heard was a threat,” as he held up his accreditation in the direction of the minister and she responded, “No, I wouldn’t do that.”
“It comes across as intimidation, you are trying to intimidate the observers when you speak about taking away accreditation,” one person, with a foreign accent was heard saying in the background.
“I am just happy that you are here…let’s leave in good spirits, some of you I am seeing for the first time and just keep on doing what you are doing,” Cummings added, as some of the observers walked out of the room.
“The last word you are hearing from me is continue doing a good job,” she said as she turned to walk away.
“Yeah but it doesn’t take away from the fact that you made a threat that you were told to take away our accreditation,” a member of the observer mission was heard saying.
As she attempted to respond, Arthur said “Madame” and made a gesture of handing back his accreditation, which he had taken from around his neck, and Cummings said, “I am saying, I told you that I wasn’t in agreement with doing that. Listen to me.”
“I speak on behalf of the Commonwealth, the largest concentration of people in the world and I am not going to have, not me, the Commonwealth, disrespected by a threat to take away the accreditation of the Commonwealth,” Arthur told Cummings, who was attempting to speak.
He stated that he was going to speak to the Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland shortly about the manner in which he was spoken to as he has a duty to report to her.
Shortly after that, Cummings left after speaking to someone on her mobile phone while Leader of the Liberty and Justice Party Lenox Shuman requested an audience with the observers.