Tue | Jan 21, 2020

Editorial | CARICOM, conscience and Bouterse

Published:Friday | December 6, 2019 | 12:19 AM

Mindful of the predilection of the world’s most powerful countries to exercise their will over weak ones, this newspaper is a stickler for a rules-based, multilateral system that respects the national sovereignty, constitutional order, and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

The exercise of sovereignty, though, doesn’t mean that countries, and their leaders, have a free hand to behave with impunity, wholly unaccountable for their actions at home, or that their friends and partners can’t call on them to explain their actions or to justify that adherence to the principles of institutions of which they are members.

This is a matter that now faces the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) with regard to the head of government of one of its member states, Desi Bouterse of Suriname. Unfortunately, however, CARICOM has no formal mechanism for dealing with the issue. It should.

Last week, a military court in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, convicted Mr Bouterse, and six other former soldiers, for murders committed 37 years ago, this month. Mr Bouterse, 74, was sentenced to 20 years in jail, but can appeal the verdict.

In 1980, Mr Bouterse led a sergeants’ coup that overthrew the government of newly independent Suriname and was the country’s de facto leader for the next eight years. In December 1982, in what became known as the ‘Christmas Killings’, soldiers rounded up 16 Surinamese lawyers, trade unionists, businessmen and intellectuals, took them to a military fort, where 15 were executed, ostensibly while attempting to escape detention. Mr Bouterse had vehemently denied ordering or in any way being involved in the massacre, although he has, in the past, assumed “political responsibility” for the murders.

Mr Bouterse disbanded his junta in 1988, although he briefly seized power again two years later, and went into civilian politics.

In 2010, he became president when his United Democratic Party and their coalition partners won the most seats in the national assembly. He was re-elected in 2015. But try as he did, through legislative and constitutional means, Mr Bouterse, once he stayed within the confines of civilian and constitutional politics, couldn’t make the case – the trial of which started in 2007 – go away.

Nearly a decade ago, in July 2010, when Mr Bouterse, whose Dutch-speaking country became a member of CARICOM in 1995, prepared for his summit of community leaders, this newspaper urged the leaders not to seat him. We stood on moral, more than legal, grounds.

Our concern was not only for the ‘December Killings’, but also for the 1986 massacre in the Maroon jungle village of Moriwana, whose residents were suspected to be supporting insurgents. We felt that he should have been taken to The Hague on war crimes. As we argued in 2010, Mr Bouterse carried blood stains, which time “may cause to recede but which history ought not to absolve”.

ESTABLISHING A FRAMEWORK

CARICOM’s leaders didn’t act then, and it is unlikely that they will act now. For those who have been vocal against Nicolas Maduro, against whose government they have railed, attempted to delegitimise and force out of the Organization of America States (OAS), allegedly for running rigged elections and violating human rights, there is, as yet, no big power with a deep interest in the Suriname matter. They are not yet being egged on.

CARICOM, however, should be capable of acting in its own interest, on its own terms, starting with its own institution. However, none of the 240 articles in the Revised Treaty of Charguaramas, the agreement establishing the regional political and economic group, provides a mechanism for the political sanctioning of a member country or its leader, for any action. Neither is there, in the revised treaty, a mechanism for the withdrawal of a member state from the community, or its obligations, if it leaves.

We expect that the provision of Article 27, of the old treaty, regarding withdrawal, would apply if a member decides to leave CARICOM, but this is a matter the community needs to clarify as well as establishing a framework for addressing circumstances like Suriname’s.