Sun | Jul 21, 2019

Editorial | A sensible approach to sensitive issues

Published:Thursday | May 2, 2019 | 12:20 AM

If the High Court’s throwing out of the Government’s national ID law holds a lesson for political administrations, it’s about the consequences of arrogance.

Success at appeal is a long shot. So, if the Holness administration wants a law that accords with the Constitution, it will have to go back to the drawing board. And, it would be best if it does so in conjunction with the political opposition and other stakeholders.

We need not have been here. For the course that the Government will eventually have to take, if it intends to go head with the law, is precisely what was recommended in the first place. It was advised to place the National Identification and Registration Act before a joint select committee of Parliament, whose hearings would have had the benefit of input from critical stakeholders. The administration baulked at the idea, claiming that passing the law was urgent.

In the event, the court ruled that requiring people to have a national identification number and card, with biometric, biographic and demographic information – without which Jamaican residents couldn’t do business with the Government or access its services – infringed the rights to privacy and equality before the law.

The court’s decision is no cause for the Opposition to crow. For administrations formed by the People’s National Party have, too, in the past, failed to engage in the necessary consensus-building for the efficacious implementation of policy. The broader, and deeper, counsel from this ruling, therefore, is for political parties to deliver on something they have long talked about – agreeing on what is in the national interest and maturely pursuing its advancement outside of narrow partisan considerations.

The greater responsibility engaging in, and promoting, this approach to governance rests with the person who leads, in this case Prime Minister Andrew Holness. There are two important and overlapping issues, relating to Jamaica’s crisis of crime, to which this principle ought to be applied.

Last year’s 22 per cent decline in murders – there were still 1,287 homicides, for a rate of above 47 per 100,000 – was largely attributed to the declaration of states of emergency in three regions of the island. Their rescinding, because the Opposition, citing concerns for human rights, withdrew support, has been blamed for an uptick in killings so far this year, especially in the parish of St James, where murders declined by 70 per cent in 2018.

ENHANCED SECURITY MEASURES LAW

Prime Minister Holness, in seeming compensation for the loss of the states of emergency, announced plans for an “enhanced security measures law”, the specifics of which haven’t been disclosed, but which, it is presumed, will give the security forces powers of search and detention beyond what is normally enjoyed by the police. Those powers, however, would be short of what is allowed in a state of emergency, when constitutional rights can be abridged. Having been declared initially for a fortnight, a state of emergency can only be extended by majority vote of all members of Parliament. Let’s see what will happen at the end of this latest one that has now been declared in St James, Hanover and Westmoreland.

As with the national ID law, the good intention of this proposed measure is not in question. But there is the danger that it, too, impinges on fundamental rights and freedoms and can be conflicting with the Constitution. It would be sensible, therefore, that the Government discusses the framework of the law with the Opposition, then place the draft bill before a committee of Parliament for review.

On the broader strategic approach to crime, Prime Minister Holness had signalled his willingness to engage in a discourse with the Opposition and other stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society groups. That initiative appears to have stalled, if it ever started. Prime Minister Holness should get it going.