Martin Henry, Contributor
On Peace Day last Tuesday, the travelling Caribbean Court of Justice was sitting in Jamaica to hear the discrimination case brought against the Barbadian government by Jamaican citizen Shanique Myrie.
Peace Day, now running for several years on the first Tuesday in March, is an initiative of PALS, which is strongly supported by The Gleaner Company.
I remember the excitement and hope back in 1994 when we were adapting for Jamaican primary-school children the conflict-solving workbooks which had been developed by the US-based Peace Education Foundation. I worked on Jamaicanising the grade-six workbook. Early Peace Days had members of the public wearing blue and blue decals with Perky Parrot the peace mascot, and motorists attaching blue streamers to their vehicles and running headlamps.
Much of the lustre has gone and not much peace has come. There is, of course, an inextricable link between peace and justice.
Thousands of Jamaicans, including hundreds of children, have been killed by 'war' since PALS was established in the mid-1990s. A tragic and traumatic event of Peace Day was the visit by schoolchildren to the Secret Gardens on Church Street in Kingston - that dreadful memorial monument to children who have been killed by violence. 'Dreadful' only in the sense of being a place of dread and inspiring dread. I can't go. I have only driven past with a glancing eye.
Yvonne Coke of Hands Across Jamaica is there daily on her 60-day fast in silence to protest the violence destroying peace in the land. Children came from Allman Town Primary School and from Tivoli Gardens High School. Just weeks before Peace Day, Rushaun Burford, a four-year-old boy, was shot and killed with two bullets through the head right next door to the school as a dissed and angry young man turned his avenging gun on the child and the child's grandmother as his way of settling a dispute. Another name for the monument of grief and shame.
In May 2010, at least 73 civilians were killed in Tivoli Gardens as the security forces squared off with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of gunmen loyal to strongman Christopher 'Dudus' Coke, who was to be extracted from the barricaded and fortified community for extradition to the US. The violence of subjugation imposed by Coke and his predecessors upon that community, and the violence unleashed in several clashes with the security forces have left deep scars and planted seeds of violence.
Crime resurfacing with a vengeance
In the absence of the iron fist of Coke and the inability of the Jamaican State to maintain law and order in his old presidential domain, violent crime is resurfacing with a vengeance, with several West Kingston murders in the last few weeks. An alleged serial murderer from the area was recently found slain in Gordon Town with multiple gunshot wounds and his throat slashed.
The itinerant presence of the CCJ in Jamaica for the Shanique Myrie case last week has opened again the long-running debate about the CCJ vs the British Privy Council. This newspaper, in its editorial last Monday, weighed in heavily in favour of the CCJ.
The editorial ended with the call: "It is time for the JLP to end its roadblock to Jamaica's accession to the court." It had earlier declared the sitting of the CCJ here to be a "defining moment", although in its original jurisdiction as the court of arbitration of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and not as a final appeals court like the Privy Council. The great relevance of the CCJ's sitting in Jamaica, according to The Gleaner, "is that it is a profound statement for Jamaica's full accession to the court."
"What is significant about the sitting in Kingston," the paper argues, "is the CCJ's use of its rules to make justice more accessible to the people it was created to serve. Ms Myrie, her lawyers, and any witnesses they may call will not have the expense of air travel to the court's headquarters in Trinidad and Tobago and accommodation.
"In the hundreds of years of its existence, the Privy Council, in so far as we can determine, has not heard a case in any of these territories. Indeed, taking a case to the Privy Council in London is economically prohibitive for but few Caribbean nationals, except those appealing their sentences in murder cases, where the physical presence of appellants and witnesses is not usually required, and the appellants are likely to receive representation pro bono," the editorial says.
The Privy Council hears around 20 appeals out of Jamaica each year. Even if the regional and itinerant CCJ could hear 10 times that number, which it may have the capacity to do, that would still be a paltry 200 cases per year.
In the long years of the wearisome debate, I have always strongly felt that if the issue is really justice, we are barking up the wrong tree, allowing ourselves to be blindsided and diverted from the real issues of injustice in Jamaica. Issues which are helping mightily to ensure that there is little peace in the land.
There are some 400,000 backlog cases in the feeble justice system, a guesstimate confirmed by the justice ministry itself. Hundreds of people languish in jail for months, and even years, waiting their long-delayed day in court. And hearings, when they finally come up, drag on for interminable days. It is at the base of the system, the resident magistrate's courts, that we need to do most to fix justice.
Listen to Permanent Secretary Carol Palmer wailing before a strident and hypocritical Public Administration and Appropriations Committee of Parliament made up of politicians who have, over the years, starved the justice system: "The structure of the ministry has major weaknesses, and I do not believe we have the capacity for the work that is required.
"When the review of the justice system was done ... , one of the first recommendations was that there should be an envelope of additional funds provided to the Ministry of Justice for the reforms to be implemented. We cannot do all the things that need to be done, when we do not have a net increase of significance in our budget."
And just how much might be needed? PS Palmer advises: "The reforms in the justice system need somewhere in the region of $5 billion." This is a mere 0.8 per cent of the initial total Estimates of Expenditure of $612.4 billion for this financial year! The core business of government everywhere, every time is security, justice and public infrastructure. Even if there is to be less public expenditure on education and health and social security, not to mention youth and culture and sports, and the ministries of production, "We want justice!"
I have long advocated, and do so again today, that a responsible Government, mindful of its core responsibilities which cannot be devolved, would top-slice from the Budget of all other ministries an across-the-board percentage to be repurposed for security and justice.
PS Palmer continues: "So if I was to tell you all that was involved, for example, in addressing the backlog of cases ... because it is not simply putting the cases on the court sheet: Where is the court going to sit? Where is the courtroom? Is the building falling down? We have, for example, had the laws for increases in magistrates, increases in the Supreme Court judges, increases in the Court of Appeal judges.
"We have not been able to increase the number of Court of Appeal judges because we do not have anywhere for them to sit. There is no courtroom, so the ministry does what it can do within its area of control, and if nothing else is provided, we can do nothing more.
"We have an agenda from 2007," she says. "We had a 10-year time horizon to implement the reforms. This is 2013, and we still have not seen any tangible increase in the Budget provided for the Ministry of Justice."
To our national shame, the permanent secretary told the PAAC that the initiatives the Ministry of Justice has been able to undertake have largely been funded by independent donor partners, who do not fund salaries and most of whom will not undertake construction funding.
Telling us what we ought to know for ourselves, the US International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2013, released on our Peace Day last Tuesday, is solemnly advising that Jamaica's low conviction rate is fuelling crime. The report says Jamaica has a conviction rate for murder of five per cent, and that this is one of the reasons organised crime continues to flourish.
"Progress in combating narcotics, illicit trafficking and corruption," the report says, "has been hobbled by an underfunded, overburdened and sluggish criminal justice system with limited effectiveness in obtaining criminal convictions."
The report also notes that the courts continue to be plagued "with a culture of trial postponements and delay.
"This lack of efficacy contributes to impunity for many of the worst criminal offenders and gangs, an abnormally high rate of violent crimes, lack of cooperation by witnesses and jurors, frustration among police officers and the public, a significant social cost and drain on the economy, and a disincentive for international investment," the report concluded.
If we want peace in this violent land, we had better pay better attention to justice.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.