Bahamas defends policy to clear shantytowns, acquire lands
NASSAU, Bahamas, CMC – The Bahamas government has defended its decision to clear shantytowns in Abaco and to compulsorily acquire lands that had been reduced to debris by Hurricane Dorian.
Dorian swept through the archipelago on September 1, killing at least 60 people and causing widespread destruction in Abaco Island and Grand Bahama.
Attorney General Carl Bethel, responding to a letter sent to the Office of the Attorney General by human rights attorney Fred Smith, said that the decision to remove the debris does not in any way, shape or form constitutes any violation of a court injunction.
Smith, a Queen’s Counsel, had claimed that the move by the government was in violation of an injunction handed down by a judge last year blocking the demolition of shantytown structures while a court matter in relation to those communities remains outstanding.
But, Bethel insisted that there were provisions under both the Environmental Health Services Act and the Buildings Regulations Act to accomplish the government’s new initiative.
“As you are aware, in addition to environmental concerns caused by the deposit of noxious substances and other pollutants into the environment, there is the very real prospect that human remains are located among the debris and the rubble,” he said, adding “these remains have to be located, recovered and processed according to the highest international and humanitarian standards.”
Bethel said that the law gives the minister with responsibility for works “special emergency powers” to demolish and remove structures made irreparably dangerous due to the occurrence of “flood, fire, hurricane or any other disaster”, subject only to preserving valuable contents for the owners of such premises to the extent such salvage is possible without endangering the safety of anyone.
“In fact, it ought to have been anticipated by you in any event that Hurricane Dorian created a fundamental change in circumstances which would have implications for the proceedings generally, and in particular for the terms of the current injunction, which might in the circumstances require modification,” Bethel said.
Smith had also complained that “recent events do not change the terms of the injunction, which remains in full force and effect unless and until varied by the court.
“Our clients continue to enjoy the same rights post-Dorian as they did pre-Dorian, nor can the injunction be overridden or sidestepped by the use of other executive powers, which are alarmingly being vocally expressed, in very draconian and terrifying terms, to our clients, by the executive.”
Smith had also objected to the statement made by Prime Minister Hubert Minnis in Parliament earlier this month that the government intends to acquire the shantytown land in Abaco.
The government has also issued an order prohibiting any rebuilding on the properties for at least six months.