Editorial | Lapse of state of emergency not the end
The People’s National Party (PNP) and its leader, Peter Phillips, must be aware of the political risk they have taken by voting down the states of public emergency in three regions of Jamaica, which had been credited with a 20 per cent decline in homicides this year. Any rise in the murders, in the short to medium will, very likely, be blamed on the opposition party.
By the same token, while this newspaper is sceptical of states of emergency being, as appeared to be the case, the Government’s primary crime-fighting tool, we are surprised, given the import the administration obviously attached to their continuance, that Prime Minister Andrew Holness was not aggressive in seeking bi-partisan support for their maintenance. He might have, for instance, have initiated backroom talks, horse-trading even, between the government and the opposition. The PNP, after all, had been signaling not only their unease with the measures, but the unlikelihood of voting for their renewal. Which they made good Tuesday night.
In the event, the emergency measures, which will have been in place in the parish of St James for approximately a year, will lapse on January 31. Those in the St Catherine North police division will end on January 2, after 11 months. In the Corporate Area they will end on January 7, after more than three months.
Cynics might see in this development, an upside for the Government. For given the lack, within its own ranks, of the two-thirds majority required for their extension, it can’t be blamed for the collapse. At the same time, debate over the opposition’s action could well divert some attention from the embarrassing scandal over corruption at the Petrojam oil refinery.
States of public emergency, as we have previously argued, are tools that should be sparingly used, given the powers they afford to the State to abridge the fundamental rights and freedoms that are the cornerstones of liberal democracy. Indeed, it is not for nothing that our Constitution sets a two-week limit for their initial imposition by the Governor General, usually on the advice of the Prime Minister, after which the approval of Parliament is required for extensions. Moreover, the legislature insisted on super-majorities for prolongations.
Few people would have opposed the February emergency in St James, where killings were already galloping after 335 murders in 2017, representing a 25 per cent increase on the previous year and a homicide rate of 183 per 100,000, which was three times the national average. This year despite a recent up-tick in the brazenness of criminals, murders in the parish are down by two-thirds, contributing substantially to the national decline. Not unreasonably, these statistics have been marked as successes for the SOEs.
We are, in the absence of deeper analysis, not sanguine about what, specifically, to attribute these outcomes - whether to the states of emergency per se, or to the massing of members of the security forces in the regions, where homicides have fallen most dramatically. The point is that the presence of large numbers of police and soldiers is of itself deterrence to criminals. And such deployments by the police commissioner and the chief of defence staff do not require the special powers of a state of emergency.
What the special powers allow, among other things, though, is for the arrest and detention of individuals for extended periods, without the normal rights of citizens to insist on the intervention of the courts. In the circumstance, it would be expected that the use of this power would be an intelligence-driving, spear-fishing exercise. Identified violence-producers would be pre-targeted and quickly held. That appears not to have been the case. For what the Public Defender, Arlene Harrison Henry discovered is that of the 3,687 persons detained in St James up to October 9, only 139, or 3.8 per cent of them, had been charged with criminal offences. But when you subtract the persons detained for petty matters, only 2.3 per cent of the detainees were charged for serious crimes. This, on the face of it, was a wide net that was indiscriminately cast.
Nonetheless, crime remains a serious problem for Jamaica. After the current round of apportioning of blame, it is urgent that the government, opposition, the private sector and civil society groups urgently find consensus on a strategy for confronting the problem, lest there is, in a few months time, a repeat of the fiasco.