Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Ian Boyne | 'Special zones’ a human-rights law

Published:Sunday | July 2, 2017 | 7:00 AM

After all the huffing and puffing, stout resistance, non-sequitur, diversionary 'reasoning', the controversial special zones bill was passed by the House of Representatives, containing all the elements that I had proposed in January and for which I was roundly abused and excoriated.

The bill will now go to the Senate for its approval.

Good sense has finally prevailed albeit after many lives lost. But up to last weekend, the Opposition People's National Party was in its reflexive opposition mode, with party President Peter Phillips dismissing the bill as "oppressive" and Justice Spokesman Mark Golding issuing a stinging, strident nine-page missive. "I consider this bill to be by far the most dangerous legislation to have been initiated by any Government in Jamaica since I entered Parliament in 2007," Golding said hysterically.

"The bill ... facilitates the imposition of a regime involving the deprivation of basic rights ..." he continued. Golding insisted that the bill was "unconstitutional", reflecting the kind of legal absolutism that defies common sense.

But by Wednesday when Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips and Security Spokesman Peter Bunting took to their feet in Parliament to debate the bill, it was a more sober, measured and rational Opposition. Phillips and Bunting gave excellent presentations, making highly reasoned points and recommendations. They were statesman-like and conciliatory. They realised that the ground had shifted. The articulate minority of human-rights fundamentalists and bleeding-heart liberals were not so articulate and convincing this time, and people now had social media to let their own voices be heard, rather than have them speak for them, as usually happened in traditional media. It's a whole new landscape.

I had said in January that the people were ahead of the elite group of vocal people in the chattering classes who had dominated traditional media with their bleeding-heart views. The people were always fed up with criminals capturing certain communities and killing whomever they want, whenever they want. Mark Wignall, no armchair columnist, had sensed that many people were fed up with the rampant and brazen criminality, and he did a column reflecting that two Thursdays ago.

Human-rights fundamentalists lost it with their Opposition to this special zones bill because this bill, now law, is actually human-rights legislation. Some had not even read it. First, they misframed the issues. It was not a matter of abrogating or "giving up" rights versus the untrammeled exercise of rights and civil liberties. That was a false dichotomy.

The people in communities that are controlled by criminals and terrorists already have their human rights and civil liberties taken away. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Hundreds of lives have been snuffed out in those communities for the first six months of this year. In June, we had the highest number of murders in any month since 2010. Who is concerned about the human rights of those slaughtered? Decent Jamaicans in those communities are already under curfew by criminals.

They have to go in and lock up inside their houses early, not knowing when gunmen are going to strike. Their friends and church brethren from outside the community can't visit them without fear. In fact, some taxis don't want to drive in certain communities after dark. That's criminal curfew.

These uptown human-rights fundamentalists can sit on their verandas late and sip champagne with their friends until those friends leave in their SUVs and BMWs. People can't have their all-night prayer and fasting service because of criminals. That's criminal curfew. Freedom of assembly is "abridged, infringed and abrogated" in those communities.

 

READ THE LAW

 

One of the most powerful presentations made to the joint select committee last week was given by none other than grass-roots activist and champion of the masses, Comrade Paul Burke, former general secretary of the PNP. There is nobody who understands Jamaican inner-city life better than Paul Burke. None. He stunned committee members last week by saying, "The Zones of Special Operations are absolutely necessary, meaning that there must be some provisions for the security forces to focus on specific communities with the intention of saving lives and removing fear from residents ..."

Burke had more to say: "If this act ... can save lives and remove fear, a fear that many law-abiding citizens are forced to comply with criminals and their sons are forcibly conscripted to become combatants; forced to protect their communities where often and for good reasons, the police and soldiers are missing at nights; those same combatants who start by protecting their communities later graduate into hardened criminals, some of whom join gangs for their economic survival." This is more than 40 years of inner-city experience and activism speaking. He is not like these uptown public commentators in their comfortable mansions and townhouses. They can wait for decades until all social problems are solved.

The people in fear of losing their children and grandmothers tonight need to have the soldiers and police in their communities, putting gunmen on the chase or nabbing them in cordons and curfews. And the fact is that the legitimate concerns about protecting citizens' rights are addressed by this law. Read the law.

The Government has even accepted the Opposition's excellent suggestion of having not one but a tribunal of three JPs to determine the justification of detentions. The PNP minority report notes, interestingly, that "despite being deployed for many years in joint operations in support of the police, the JDF has continued to enjoy the confidence of the citizens of Jamaica, acting professionally and observing the rule of law." Hmmm. Well, the Holness Government has ensured that the police are not solely responsible for operations in the zones, but that there is a Joint Command with a major in the JDF.

 

PROTECT CITIZENS

 

You don't trust the police, and you know the army is more disciplined and professional. Well, you have that protection in this law. Officers will have body cameras. The prime minister is even considering taking the unprecedented move of having the Opposition on the National Security Council, without whose advice he can't declare any area a special zone. The Parliament is to have oversight of these zones. That was an important contribution of the Opposition. As I said last week, the view that the PM should not have the right to declare a zone is a reasonable objection, though it is not mine. But the wholesale rejection of the bill was grossly irrational and just a knee-jerk reaction to any hard policing.

There are systems of accountability in this law. The security forces are not just left on their own to abuse decent citizens. They must report to the National Security Council every 10 days. This law reflects all that we have learnt over 40 years. It cannot be compared to the Suppression of Crime Act, as some have ignorantly accused.

And this new law provides safeguards. Once people read the bill rather than react emotionally, they will see that it advances human rights. Some ask why a new law when the security forces have all these powers in various bits of legislation. Well, this law gives new powers: Soldiers now, under curfew and cordon conditions, have powers of arrest. That does not exist anywhere else. Security officers can also order irresponsible, exploitative parents to send their children to school or to rescue children from abusive situations. They have truancy powers which are now enjoyed only by persons covered under the Education Act. That's new.

And there are the important and pivotal social intervention mechanisms. The PM has pledged to support social investments and has said he will reorder budgetary priorities to reflect this. Let's hold him to this.

This law liberates communities captured and terrorised by criminals, enforces human-rights safeguards to protect decent citizens against abuses, and legislates social intervention. The Holness administration and the attorney general must be commended for this progressive piece of legislation. In the end, even the political Opposition had to come on board. I commend them. When these zones are declared and criminals are on the run, our oppressed, fear-paralysed fellow citizens can enjoy the same human rights and civil liberties enjoyed by us uptown.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.