Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Editorial | Is the special zones law shelved?

Published:Thursday | August 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We had formed the impression that the Government - as well as the constabulary - couldn't wait to have their zones of special operations law.

When, for instance, a joint parliamentary committee held hearings on the bill one day in June, the justice minister, Delroy Chuck, rushed to prepare a report for tabling that same day, despite the complaints from the Opposition that they needed time to write a minority position. After a row in the House, they were given an overnight reprieve.

The law was urgent, government officials suggested, because it was critical to addressing Jamaica's ongoing crisis of crime. At the height of the controversy over the bill in June, murders in 2017 had passed the 600 mark, maintaining its upward spiral from the levels in April when Prime Minister Holness tabled the bill, declaring it a response "to rampant criminality, gang warfare, murder and a threat to law and order".

The law will allow the prime minister - after the formality of being requested to do so by the heads of the police and the army - to declare zones of special operations in defined areas, where the security forces will have special powers to operate, just shy of those afforded under a state of public emergency.

The difference in this case is that committees will be established to determine the socio-economic needs of the intervened communities. But there is nothing in the legislation to guarantee the money will be available for spending on the identified problems.

This newspaper argued that no new law was required for Government to systematically clear criminals from areas, holding them against the return of the bad men, and attempting to build wholesome communities with the supporting law-abiding citizens - in the fashion of a scheme pioneered in the favelas of Rio. The Jamaican Government, however, insisted on the necessity of the law.

"The crime problem in Jamaica requires urgent action and the new legislation is an appropriate response," argued Prime Minister Holness when he unveiled the legislation in its initial iteration.

In the Senate debate, Pearnel Charles Jr, the deputy security minister, said it was important for "targeting criminals and rebuilding communities". And on the final debate in the House, when the Senate's amendments were incorporated into the bill, Mr Chuck framed the law in a context of going after "marauding criminal elements".

"We cannot allow gunmen to take over the country," Mr Chuck said. "We must put them on the run."

 

NO SENSE OF URGENCY

 

As the law was clearing the final legislative hurdle, the constabulary dispatched spokesmen to talk up its merits. Members of the security forces were called to human-rights training aimed at ensuring that concerns raised by the public never materialised.

At the time of the law's passage, the parish of St James, the region of most murders in Jamaica, was the clear hotspot. Homer Davis, head of its local government and mayor of its capital city, Montego Bay, was publicly lobbying for his parish to be declared the first zone of special operations. In Kingston, the major flare-up was Tivoli Gardens, in the capital's western end.

In the month and a half since then, there have been major outbreaks of violence in east Kingston as well as the community of Maverley in St Andrew. Scores of lives have been lost. The national murder count is past 700 - and climbing.

Somehow, though, we don't feel the sense of urgency over the zones of special operations law. There must be an explanation. When will its provisions be used?