Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Commissions of Enquiry: Give them teeth

Published:Friday | September 16, 2016 | 9:00 AMChristopher Serju
Tivoli Gardens resident, Fredricka DaCosta (forefront) among other Tivoli Gardens residents as they marched to Gordon House in May 2014 to deliver a letter to then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in regards to the Tivoli incursion in 2010.

In the aftermath of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, a Royal Commission investigation into the actions of Governor Edward John Eyre thereafter, which resulted in the random execution of at least 400 blacks, led to his removal from office and recall by the Colonial Office.

Most of those arrested under martial law imposed by Governor Eyre were quickly tried and executed, while others were punished with whippings and long prison sentences in what is still regarded as the most severe suppression of unrest in the history of the British West Indies.

Between 1866 and 1868, the Jamaica Committee, led by John Stuart Mill, failed in three attempts to prosecute the former governor for murder and abuse of power. This as English grand juries refused to indict or convict his subordinates.

Since then, this country has had more than its fair share of commissions of inquiry into incidents of violence or other wrongdoing by the State, against the Jamaican citizenry, at great cost to the public purse but with very little to show by way of conviction, compensation, or clarification. This has led to the general view of these inquires as an orchestrated waste of time and money, with very little benefit accruing to the victims of the incidents investigated.

"There is consensus that in the most general sense, a commission of inquiry is a government-sanctioned body, a mechanism of the executive branch of government used to investigate and report on controversial issues of great public concern. Commissions of inquiry possess statutory power, which enables investigations to be carried out in accordance with their mandate. It is typical for commissions to provide the Government with a report that makes recommendations that are in keeping with the findings from its investigation and the broader underlying issues. This is critical as it is one of the most important bases for assessing a commission's value."

This explanation of the general purposes of a commission of inquiry in the Jamaican context, by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI,) has, for the most part, has been lost on the Jamaican public, which, over the years, has given up on any meaningful actions flowing from such investigations. Members of CaPRI, which undertook a comprehensive review of many of the commissions of inquiry, are convinced that if the recommendations are implemented, they can foster the necessary changes that would result in an improved society.

 

OPPORTUNITY TO REMEDY PROBLEMS

 

Imani Duncan-Price, co-executive director of CaPRI, is convinced the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry presents an ideal opportunity to start remedying some of the many longstanding social problems identified by such reviews.

"I think it is opportune now that we use this chance to actually take substantive steps to implement well-thought-out reports of the past and make a difference beyond walking hand in hand in communities. There are particularly substantive things that can be done, so not only do we deal with the redress of persons who suffered over those days, in the community, but also the wider impact on the country in terms of violence and politics and garrisons," Duncan-Price told a Gleaner Editors' Forum on CaPRI's review of commissions of inquiry yesterday.

She went on to make the case for stronger informed advocacy, with the expectation that this should translate into better implementation.

"Every commission of enquiry, no matter what the topic, is a public concern, not just around a political objective to be achieved. It's a public concern, and in this particular case, (concern is) apart from the issues of compensation, which are important to the persons who live in Tivoli and innocent persons who suffered the horrific days during that incursion," Duncan-Price said.

Dr Yonique Campbell, CaPRI affiliate researcher who works in the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, underscored the importance of ensuring that critical policy outcomes from such inquiries are be communicated to affected parties, as well as the general public.

"Human-rights violation is going to be very, very important and the fundamental value that we ought to place on human life. So if you violate people's human rights, then you are signalling that they ought not to trust the State. Jamaicans regard commissions of inquiry with suspicion, and that is based on the fact that we have not seen the implementation and policy outcomes that we want to see when the Government makes an expenditure to actually set up something as important as a commission," she explained.

An oversight body structured in much the same way as the Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC), chaired by businessman Richard Byles, would be a very effective first step in terms of gaining public trust, according to Duncan-Price.

"The EPOC is not something to be trivialised. It was a critical part in the early days of ensuring that government, politicians, and technical persons were supported. Now, if in fact, we can raise this issue of these underlying factors to that level and request, demand, call on the Government to have a similar kind of structure and a reporting, not by Government but by somebody who the public tends to trust ... ."

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com