Wed | Jul 24, 2019

Raymond Pryce | 'Topsy-turvy' state of emergency

Published:Sunday | December 16, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Police whisk away detainees for interrogation under the state of public emergency in St Catherine North Police Division on March 19.
This rifle and ammunition were found during an operation by the military and police in Montego Bay, St James, which is under the public state of emergency that is due to expire.
Raymond Pryce
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Noted French Economist Frederic Bastiat once said: "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over time, they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it."

This statement captures the recent political and social developments in Jamaica.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has witnessed a hat-trick of events that have shaken the foundations of his administration. The public defender's report on conditions experienced by detainees under the states of public emergency, the auditor general's report on abnormalities at Petrojam, and the decision by the parliamentary Opposition to end its support for the serial extensions of the states of public emergency have set the stage for an in-depth assessment of the political stocks of both the Government and Opposition.

It is a gift of the democratic traditions in Jamaica that our Parliament establishes commissions that are allowed to pursue mandates independent of political interference. Accordingly, the public defender, as an independent creature, scours through issues with the objective to advocate for the protection of the constitutional rights of citizens. It is not a partisan appointment, and the appointee is invested by the Parliament and is appointed by the governor general.

The report into the experiences to which detainees have been subjected describes an appalling situation of which no Jamaican can be proud. In the time that has followed - the report has been heralded by some and criticised by others. In a rare public presentation, Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson stated:

"We have the lowest rate of murders in St James now since 2003. So there is a reason why when I go down there, people say, 'Never let it end.' He went on to say, "Now we know that we have to [let it end] at some point, but we do not want to be captured by any narrative that is going to cause us to end it prematurely."

He went on to describe other facts that are equally appalling regarding the detained children:

"We had a hundred and five children taken into custody, of which 80 were 17 years old, 19 were 16 years old, five of them were 15, and one was 13 years old."

He also stated that "the 13-year-old, one of the 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old were charged for murder. Four more were charged for other gun offences. And two for sexual offences, including rape and twenty one of those were known gang members." He closed the point by properly stating that it is not a "desire" but rather a "necessity" for officers to take children into custody. The greater point was to accurately bring to the public's attention the realities of who some of our children have become.

Understandably, though not as loudly, civil-society organisations complained about children being detained with adults. Perhaps the standard should be - how are rapists, murderers and gang members to be treated when detained? Certainly, the responses ought not to include inhumanely - which is the core of the public defender's report.

In the days that followed, the request by a parliamentary committee to have former detainees testify was shut down by government members. During the same period came the astonishing findings of the auditor general's report. Then came the maelstrom of Tuesday, December 11, when a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee - now the subject of controversy - was halted upon the withdrawal of the parliamentary staff by the clerk of the Houses of Parliament.

In a memorandum read by committee Chair Mark Golding, the clerk revealed that she had received instructions from Leader of Government Business Karl Samuda to withdraw her staff, therefore bringing the meeting to an abrupt end.

At the sitting of the House that same afternoon, nothing short of a firestorm ensued as opposition and government members had a go at each other trying to establish the merits and demerits of the PAC having attempted to meet.

The debate on the request for yet another extension of the State of Emergency next took centre stage. However, on this occasion, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips carried through an action previously hinted at on March 25, 2018, at a meeting of the National Executive Council of the PNP. He stated then that the Opposition does not intend to indefinitely support "stopgap" crime-fighting measures being pursued by the Government.

In an article published Sunday, January 21, 2018, I had stated my own support for the state of emergency in St James. Among other points made then was that: "While I support and anticipate success from the state of emergency, there are matters arising from ZOSO that need to be addressed concurrently. For clearly, had ZOSO been successful, it would have been declared for the entire parish of St James in lieu of the state of emergency."

Almost a year later, there have been successes from the SOE. As the commissioner himself revealed - murders are at their lowest since 2003. There is also now consensus that ZOSO, especially the social-intervention aspects, have borne fruit.

Perhaps the next step is simpler than it appears. Extend ZOSO across the entire parish of St James. This includes the maintenance of high presence of the security forces. The powers under the Anti-gang Legislation should now be quite useful with all the data that has been harvested from the processing of the detainees over the period. A system of smart policing is long overdue. Automation and technology need to permeate from centralised units through stations and posts to each constable via the deployment of smart devices across a secure network that gives intel needed for targeted security interventions, including arrests.

For St Catherine Northern, the SOE should be replaced with a ZOSO. Those, too, should be extended no longer than another year. By then, they should be replaced by zones of development. This has been the missing link all along.

Zones of exclusions need to be dismantled and replaced by liberties, real rights and freedoms and access to better health, education and human development services.

The facts are these. There are specific conditions that authorise the extension by Parliament of a state of emergency already declared. Those conditions no longer exist. There are also powers reposed in the prime minister individually to seek from the Governor General the declaration of a state of public emergency. Andrew Holness still has those powers.

Yet in the very arguments proffered by him and other government members in the debate on Tuesday - and supported by data from the security forces - the significant improvements on the ground no longer justify such a request. At any rate, an 'emergency', by its very nature, cannot be perpetual. Additional extensions would confirm a deeper inability of the State to provide basic security to its people.

The prime minister and the Government may have checkmated themselves and are now captives of their own success. There is also a new dimension. The Petrojam oil slick has taken the shine off the Holness administration. While the public defender's report may have been easily dispatched for now - the interrogation into the auditor general's report has only been delayed. Many natural supporters of the Jamaica Labour Party and of Holness have been left 'topsy-turvy' by the report.

How Holness manoeuvres between being the head of government and head of party will determine how he enters the critical year four of his administration. It is safe to say this isn't how he thought Year Three would have ended.

Thats the thing about Jamaicans, give all the 'carpet' you want and and even 'eat-a-food' while you are at it, but to 'eat a cake' and Wakanda party at the public's expense - well, that's just unacceptable.

The infamous "let them have cake" remark ascribed to Marie Antoinette in the days just prior to the French Revolution has become a haunting metaphor of the carefree attitude of the disconnected elite that revels in surplus while the masses eke out an ordinary existence.

The opportunity cost to Holness of the Petrojam situation is still to be assessed. Conversely, it presents a new 'oil field for the Opposition Party. All coincide with an awakened electorate during this the window-shopping' period as the next general election looms. The first quarter of 2019 will determine who the electorate will purchase.

- Raymond Pryce is an ex-member of parliament and former senator in the Simpson Miller administration. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.