In the field of Caribbean human rights law, few have done more on behalf of the vulnerable than Guyanese Arif Bulkan. Raymond Ramcharitar learns about his work in indigenous and LGBT rights.
In a recent book, the US anthropologist David McDermott Hughes accused Trinidadians and Tobagonians of having a blind spot for the defining issue of our time: climate change. This came as a surprise to many, as the number of activists and causes in Trinidad and Tobago and the region is very high.
From children’s rights to women’s issues, to reproductive health and crime and poverty reduction, activists and activism abound. But climate change is not the only lacuna in the activism landscape. Two critical areas, till very recently, were virtually unheard of: LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights, and indigenous people’s rights. One man who has been working quietly on both for decades in both T&T and Guyana was recently recognised.
Dr Christopher Arif Bulkan, an advocate attorney and University of the West Indies academic, is the most recent Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence laureate in Public and Civic Contributions for his work on both indigenous people’s and LGBT rights. He now lives and works in Trinidad, where he’s based at UWI, St Augustine, but has also lived and worked in Guyana and Barbados over the past two decades.
In the pursuit of Amerindian rights, Bulkan has been a major contributor in educating the indigenous population of Guyana — who make up more than ten per cent of the country’s total population — and was the lead local consultant hired by the government of Guyana to revise the Amerindian Act in 2002. His doctoral thesis was on the issue, and has since become a textbook, The Survival of Indigenous Rights in Guyana. Bulkan has also, in recent times, and in collaboration with colleagues at the University of the West Indies, launched two potentially paradigm-altering cases in the courts of Belize and Guyana on LGBT rights.
Arif Bulkan grew up in Guyana during the Burnham era. “This was a menacing period,” he recalls, “where amid economic hardship, free speech was stifled, political rallies routinely broken up by paid thugs, and opponents of the regime were harassed, bullied, and pursued with the full force of the law.”
The natural environment made a tremendous impression on Bulkan and his family. His sister Janette, an anthropologist, is an ardent activist who campaigns for the preservation of Guyana’s rainforests. Even his brothers, whom Bulkan describes as businessmen, are vocal in their condemnation of political corruption, and have paid a price for it.
His own path to his present position was not a straight one, despite his gift for activism and combining law practice with social conscience. “This may sound like I always wanted a career in law,” says Bulkan, “but in truth that happened by accident. For as long as I remember, what I really wanted to do was write fiction.”
His activism grew as his education grew. He began university in Guyana, won a scholarship to UWI, another to University College London, and yet another to Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. When he returned to Guyana in 1990, after his UWI education, he became involved in political activism. Then on returning from the UK and Canada, he worked as an attorney, magistrate, and in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as lecturing part time at the University of Guyana. During one of these sojourns, in 2002, he was hired by the government of Guyana to work on the revision of the Amerindian Act.
Annette Arjoon-Martins, one of the co-founders of the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society, credits him with being an inspiration to her personally, and of enormous help in educating indigenous populations with regard to their rights. “I have known Arif all my life,” she says. “He has always been an inspiration. When I started my career as a conservationist, he was a young lawyer. He was very gracious, assisting us as we needed, always pro bono. When I established the GMTS in 2000, he was one of the first people I went to.”
He’s done the same for other groups. Joel Simpson, founder of the Guyana Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), remembers Bulkan’s presence and participation in the initial meetings which led to its formation when Simpson was a student at the University of Guyana in 2001, and Bulkan was a lecturer. This area of endeavour, which has occupied Bulkan for the last decade, he pursues in conjunction with his UWI colleagues Tracy Robinson and Douglas Mendes, and the organisation they co-founded, the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP).
Outside of activism and teaching, though, Bulkan also works hands-on as an advocate. He is the lead attorney in one of the two cases initiated by U-RAP, both of which could change the landscape of LGBT rights in the Caribbean: Caleb Orozco vs the Attorney General in Belize, and McEwan, Clarke, Fraser, Persaud, and SASOD vs the Attorney General in Guyana. Bulkan and his team planned to initiate legal action in Belize, since its legislative environment was conducive to the kind of litigation pursued (the decriminalisation of same-sex acts). But, as they were about to file, he says, the Guyana case of cross-dressers being arrested under vagrancy laws came to public attention. “These laws are always selectively applied to the poorest of the poor,” he says. “Always those least able to navigate the legal system, and they end up pleading guilty.” Similar cases against cross-dressers were also initiated in Trinidad and Tobago in recent years.
The Belize case established the unconstitutionality (in Belize) of the criminalisation of sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same sex. The Guyana case, which challenged the archaic Guyanese law about “the wearing of female attire” by men in public, and the inverse for women, is still being determined via the appeals process.
LGBT rights are a contentious area in the Caribbean, but it may be more noise than substance. “The debates on this tend to be hijacked by the very vocal, but we have no sense they are the majority,” Bulkan says. “Polls done by Caribbean Development Research Services of Barbados have shown a shift in sentiment on the issue. Younger people are more tolerant — though this is a word I don’t like.”
Bulkan’s UWI colleague Dr Sharon Le Gall describes him as one of those rare people who is both a teacher and a scholar. Apart from his book on indigenous people’s rights, he has co-authored another on constitutional law. “I think Arif’s major contribution is still to be felt,” said Le Gall. “This is work with his students, of whom he demands the highest standards. The effects of his work as a teacher and exemplar will be realised far in the future.”