By David Williams,
BRITISH PRIME Minister Tony Blair yesterday committed himself to working towards a "significant upgrading" of UK/CARICOM relations, with continued emphasis on helping to fight crime and the trafficking of narcotics.
Mr. Blair and CARICOM leaders also pledged to pay increased attention to trade, investment, and educational and cultural ties.
Following bilateral talks with Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, and separate discussions with Caribbean Community heads at Jamaica House yesterday, Prime Minister Blair said that improved foreign relations between Britain and her former Caribbean colonies were "long overdue".
Mr. Blair, who visited the island yesterday on the first leg of a three-nation Caribbean and Latin American tour, told members of the local and British press that the issue of crime and drugs was high on the agenda during his discussions with host Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and other CARICOM leaders.
Prime Ministers Hubert Ingraham of the Bahamas, Owen Arthur of Barbados, Dr. Denzil Douglas of St. Kitts/Nevis, Basdeo Panday of Trinidad and Tobago, and Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, President of Guyana Bharrat Jagdeo, and Surinamese Vice President, Jules Adojha, were among the regional leaders at yesterday's talks with the British Prime Minister.
Mr. Blair pointed out that Britain and several Caribbean countries have been co-operating to police more effectively the trafficking of illegal drugs. Areas of co-operation include a number of bilateral initiatives between the UK and Jamaica.
"The issues of crime and drugs are tremendously important and that's why we're agreeing on a set of intensive measures to deal with that problem," said the British leader as he stood alongside CARICOM chairman Hubert Ingraham and Prime Minister Patterson at Jamaica House.
He also said he felt his government had struck the right balance between providing arms for Jamaican law enforcement officers and protecting the human rights of Jamaicans by facilitating training to help officers use guns appropriately.
Mr. Blair had earlier in the day told the press of his concern that 65 per cent of the cocaine entering Europe came via Caribbean transshipment points, and that on average, 30 murders in the UK each year could be linked directly to Jamaica and the illegal drug trade.
However, he stressed that attention would not be restricted to crime and law enforcement matters in forging closer UK/CARICOM relations, since trade and investment, education and cultural ties were also critical to the development of the Caribbean's "tremendous future in investment and tourism".
Noting that hundreds of thousands of people in Britain have strong ties to Jamaica and the Caribbean, Mr. Blair, whose British Labour Party won an increased majority in general elections in May, said there was a need to maintain "strong links of history and heritage". But, in response to a question from a local journalist about the movement to end judicial appeals to the British Privy Council, he stressed that his government saw its role as that of facilitating the decision of CARICOM states to establish an indigenous Court of Appeal, rather than dictating to them against their sovereign will.
CARICOM Chairman Hubert Ingraham, who described the two-hour talks as "very useful", said the need for having the UK to act as a "principal spokesperson" for CARICOM states in the global forum "to take account of out point of view and to make sure that our point of view is considered by the leadership of the G-8 and by the leadership of the WTO" also featured prominently in the talks.
"We would want Britain to continue to be the lead 'spokesperson' for the Caribbean region. But we've made it very clear that there are no permanent friends in this business and we shall have to do what is considered best for ourselves and of course we think that Britain is the best country to speak for us in this part of the world, (though) it is not the only country that can speak for us."
He said Britain and CARICOM will be working to establish a framework for greater co-operation between now and October when CARICOM heads meet with the UK at the Commonwealth level.