Martin Henry | Voting down SOEs and losing votes
In the week that the world marked International Human Rights Day (December 10), the parliamentary Opposition here took the bold step to vote against any further extension of the three states of emergency now running in St James, St Catherine North, and southern parts of Kingston.
I say bold to be safe because this action may be either brave or reckless. The leader of the Opposition says he is very much aware of the possible political costs of pitting the party against the widely popular SOEs in the interest of the lofty principles of human rights to which the country subscribes in its Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
The people, of course, also have a fundamental right to constituency political representation acting on their behalf and reflecting their wishes as far as possible, although the time comes when leaders may have to direct the wishes of the people and act on higher principles until the people catch up. This is always a difficult call. Dr Phillips says he has made the call.
It might have been useful if the neckhold of partisan politics exercised through the parliamentary whip had been relaxed on both sides, allowing MPs to vote by conscience on the extension of the states of emergency. As it went, the 33-21 and 30-20 votes were strictly along party lines, failing to secure the two-thirds majority the SOE law requires for extensions.
The Opposition PNP might have acknowledged the significant benefits of the enhanced security measures for which it has previously voted extensions then railed against the human-rights abuse and save face and political capital by abstaining from the vote. Bearing in mind that the party ran the longest state of emergency for the entire island to date, from June 1976 to June 1977, under the most controversial circumstances, including the long-term detention of high-ranking opposition JLP politicians without charge, and during which 'caan-lose' general elections were held in December 1976. Detainee Pearnel Charles is now speaker of the House of Representatives.
A free vote in Parliament last Tuesday might have better reflected the will of the people. There is hardly any question that the weight of public opinion is decidedly in favour of extending, indeed for expanding, the enhanced security measures under which there have been dramatic declines in murders in the operational areas and nationally by 21.7 per cent. People in the affected areas have chafed over restrictions in freedom of movement and the conducting of business, and there has been a national outcry over the conditions in which net-fished detainees have been held and over the vindictive abuse of detention powers by the security forces.
But, overall, support for the crime reduction experienced has been strong. 'Dark day in MoBay - Stakeholders concerned with halt to SOE in St James' was the Gleaner leader on Thursday.
Mayor of Montego Bay Homer Davis expressed his dismay and disappointment at the vote. "... The people," the mayor moaned, "are in shock and disbelief and are very disappointed in the way in which the Opposition voted against the SOE. Today is a dark day in the parish of St James. There's a saying that he who feels it knows it, and we've lived it, we've experienced it, and I've had to bury long-standing friends who have been wantonly murdered. I'm not saying the SOE should be there forever, but allow the security forces to build out the necessary infrastructure, personnel, and technology that will be required to monitor and police St James."
Civic leaders in the west have chimed in, and so have the ordinary people in the streets.
The three biggest private-sector umbrella groups - the PSOJ, the JMEA and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce - called for meetings with the Government and Opposition over the SOE impasse but failed in their bid for neutrality. They were aware, they said, of the ferocious impact of crime, violence, and corruption on the Jamaican people and economy.
It was their view, they said, that the SOEs, as one of the anti-crime initiatives, have been effective in reducing the level of crime in the areas implemented, "for example, in St James, where there has been a 72 per cent reduction in murder and a 63 per cent reduction in shootings".
Even the strident human-rights advocacy group, Jamaicans for Justice, came in on the fence in its media-release reaction to the SOE vote in Parliament. The release said: "JFJ fully supports lawful and legitimate crime-fighting measures that dismantle criminal networks and restore peace and security to Jamaica. Every Jamaican has a human right to life, to feel safe, and live peacefully. At the same time, every Jamaican has the right to be protected from state abuse and illegal detention by security forces. As a mature society, Jamaica should never trade one set of protections for another. ... Sadly, despite the best of intentions, the present states of emergency have not adhered to the laws of this country."
When all documented cases of abuse are accounted for, never in the history of enhanced security operations in this country have the security forces conducted themselves with such regard for human rights and the ordinary people on the ground so embraced the operations. Some 88 per cent of the people in St James support the state of emergency in the parish, the minister of national security advised Parliament from an unverified poll, a number broadly supported by media vox pops.
By their very nature, human rights are two-way. The rights of detainees and others negatively affected by enhanced security measures have to be balanced against the rights of citizens not to be murdered, robbed, or raped, and to enjoy a safe environment.
But the Government has set itself up for this SOE impasse. It didn't have to come to this. If the provisions for zones of special operations had been made to work effectively in multiple crime hotspots across the country, there would have been no need for states of emergency.
In the Clear-Hold-Build ZOSO model, 'Clear' should have been an intense, intelligence-driven, short-term measure to quite literally clear out the crime leaders from the communities in which they are embedded. 'Hold' would then require much less manpower, freeing up resources for other rolling 'Clear' operations.
Under the SOEs, the security forces reverted to the tired, old counter-productive and hated strategy of scraping up masses of poor, unattached young men and holding them in less-than-humane conditions in unready detention centres. Only four per cent of more than 3,000 detainees have been charged with anything. The Government's defensive politicking over the reports of the public agencies on detention conditions has not helped.
The no-further-extension intransigence of the PNP Opposition on this super-charged SOE issue, a position that runs against public opinion, will further damage Peter Phillips' prospects of leading the country, but he may be transitioning from mere politician to a statesman willing to pay the price in defence of a larger national interest.
The stance of the Opposition will also force the hand of the Government to field an effective anti-crime strategy not dependent on emergency powers. If that strategy works well, Phillips will be further handicapped in his bid for Jamaica House, a huge incentive for the governing JLP to craft that strategy.