Thu | Nov 30, 2023

Editorial | Shiprider needs review

Published:Sunday | June 23, 2019 | 12:00 AM

We welcome the Government’s announcement of its engagement of the United States to determine whether “appropriate procedures” were followed when the Americans detained Jamaicans at sea under the Shiprider Agreement. But the Holness administration must go much further.

First, our Government can’t be tentative in asking the Americans to protect the human rights of our citizens, but must forcefully insist upon it. But more critical, recent events provide an opportunity for Jamaica to demand a full review of the Shiprider Agreement and insist that these protections are written into the new text, especially in circumstances where it waives its rights over the jurisdiction of citizens when held in international or other people’s waters, allowing them to be tried under American law.

It emerged last week that five Jamaican fishermen – Patrick Ferguson, Robert Weir, Luther Patterson, David Williams and George Thompson – are, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, suing the US Coast Guard for alleged cruel and inhuman treatment after they were held in the vicinity of Haitian waters in September 2017.

The men were suspected of trafficking marijuana when held, but no ganja was found aboard their small fishing boat when it was boarded. Many weeks later, when the case came up in a Florida court, prosecutors conceded that they couldn’t sustain the drug charges, but the men were convicted for making false statements to federal law-enforcement officials at the time of their detention. They insist that their guilty plea was because they were advised it was the quickest way to return to Jamaica. In the event, they spent 10 months in a US jail and were deported to Jamaica last August.

More striking is the men’s claim of being held incommunicado for more than a month, bounced from vessel to vessel, and shackled to the decks of ships, facing the elements, before being taken to Florida and through the court process.

After its circumlocutory waffle to suggest the Government’s lack of knowledge of the affair, without actually saying so, the foreign affairs ministry was forced to concede it wasn’t really ignorant of the issue, although it was in the dark about the human rights violations.

The Jamaican Government had, in fact, waived its rights to its jurisdiction to the men at the time of the interdiction, as is allowed under the Shiprider Agreement.


These agreements have been controversial since they were first implemented more than two decades ago as part of America’s War on Drugs, as well as a grudging acknowledgement of the Caribbean’s inability to adequately enforce its own laws. Broadly, Shiprider allows US vessels to patrol or chase suspected drug smugglers into the waters of treaty states and, in the case of the five Jamaicans, for them to be tried in US courts.

Among Caribbean countries, Jamaica and Barbados were the last of the hold-outs on Shiprider. P.J. Patterson’s administration of the 1990s insisted that the Americans have blanket authority for hot pursuit into Jamaican waters, or unencumbered powers of law enforcement in our territorial seas. So, in the case of a chase of suspected drug traffickers towards Jamaican waters, they first had to be authorised by the “competent authority to end”. With regard to regular patrol of the island’s territorial waters, a Jamaican law-enforcement official, the shiprider, is supposed to be aboard the vessel to enforce Jamaica’s laws in the event of encounters.

Originally, if a Jamaican vessel were held in international waters, Jamaica could waive jurisdiction rights over the vessel and non-Jamaicans aboard it, but not to Jamaicans. But under a 2016 amendment promoted by former national security minister, Peter Bunting, the restriction on outsourcing Jamaican justice was lifted.

The 2016 amendments require that Jamaica be satisfied that the person over whom jurisdiction is waived will receive a fair trial and would have their constitutional rights protected, including protection from ill-treatment because of colour, race or class.

While these undertakings are part of Jamaican law, what is not clear is how they are represented in the agreement, and what are the mechanisms in place to ensure that the parties adhere to their obligations. That now demands certitude – and transparency.