Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Use the West Kingston enquiry as a template

Published:Wednesday | February 4, 2015 | 12:00 AMLivern Barrett
FILEr Dr Elizabeth Ward, chairman, Violence Prevention Alliance.
FILE Chairman of the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry, Sir David Simmons (foreground) and co-commissioner Professor Anthony Harriott.
Gardner
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AMID THE political squabble over the importance of the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry, a leading violence prevention advocate is suggesting that the process could provide policymakers with a template to deal with other so-called garrison communities.

Dr Elizabeth Ward, chairperson of the Violence Prevention Alliance (VPA), says if managed properly, the Sir David Simmons-chaired commission could also help Jamaicans understand the impact of these communities on the rest of the society.

"How do we break links to organised crime ... how do we really allow for the development to occur?" Ward asked as she listed some of the issues the enquiry could illuminate.

"And everybody in the community can achieve and live a normal life as part of society and contribute to society, not isolated from society," she continued.

Ward was one of several sector leaders canvassed by The Gleaner who voiced support for the enquiry, which was established to examine, among other things, the conduct of members of the security forces during the 2010 incursion into the west Kingston community of Tivoli Gardens.

ANSWER CRITICAL QUESTIONS

While acknowledging that the enquiry could begin to provide answers to critical questions about what really happened in the west Kingston community in May 2010 and help to develop clear guidelines for the security forces should a similar situation arise, The Reverend Dr Paul Gardner said the "biggest issue" is whether the country will learn anything from the process.

"One of the problems with us - with the number of commissions of enquiry that we have had - is that we tend not to learn from them. We keep having them and we complain about costs, but we not really learning from them," said Gardner, who is the president of the Moravian Church in Jamaica and The Cayman Islands.

"If you look at all of them, the same errors are being made. It's kind of a scant regard, a disregard ... a blatant disregard for the sanctity of life and the care of people, especially poor people," the clergyman continued, while making it clear that he was expressing his personal views.

Added Gardner: "There is a way in which we don't care and you notice where it always happens ... in poor garrison communities."

An interim report prepared by the Office of the Public Defender revealed that at the end of the operations, which were aimed at capturing then fugitive Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, 76 civilians and one soldier were killed. Residents also complained of widespread atrocities.

RESUME NEXT MONDAY

The enquiry, which began last December, took a break for the Christmas holidays and is scheduled to resume next Monday. More than 20 witnesses - mostly residents of west Kingston - have already given evidence, recounting stories of being shot and physically abused by members of the security forces during the operations.

After initially indicating a willingness to participate in the enquiry, the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) is now questioning whether it is necessary, given the approximately $300 million price tag.

"Given the fact that an interim report [from the Public Defender's Office] and other processes are still available to answer the central questions posed in the [terms of reference for the] enquiry, we must ask ourselves, as a nation, whether the decision to have the enquiry was ever a prudent one," former JLP spokesman on justice Alexander Williams said recently.

However, the Government, through Justice Minister Mark Golding and Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, has defended the cost of the enquiry and is insisting that it will continue.

But Gardner, in voicing support for the enquiry, said the three-member panel should be able to establish "the truth about what exactly happened during the incursion" and should be able to indicate to the nation whether members of the security forces were "negligent or excessive" in carrying out their duties during the incursion.

The former chairman of the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition said he expects the commission to also provide guidance on how members of the security forces should conduct themselves if a similar operation is undertaken.

"Should this happen again in another community, what would we have learnt from what happened in western Kingston? Certainly, the loss of so many lives, for me, is unwarranted," he underscored.

Executive director of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Dennis Chung, believes every Jamaican should take an interest in the enquiry and says the nation deserves to know the truth.

"There is a lot of accusation, one way or the other, as to what happened, and the truth is that we really don't know. We want to know what happened ... the truth," Chung underscored.

Ward agreed, pointing out that sharing the truth often leads to reconciliation among different groups.

"If we don't learn from what has happened, how are we going to know how to prevent it going forward?" the VPA chairman asked.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com