Columns

Velma Hylton may now wish she'd never made the comment

BY COLONEL ALLAN DOUGLAS

Monday, March 31, 2014    

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THE Jamaica Observer editorial of March 20, 2014, entitled 'Now that Ms Velma Hylton has stepped aside...' has left me somewhat confused and troubled. Having endorsed the correctness of Ms Velma Hylton's decision to step aside as one of the Tivoli Inquiry's commissioners, the editorial invited readers to further consider Ms Hylton's inability to understand the "logic behind saying that police and soldiers could not return fire if women and children deliberately put themselves in-between the law and order forces and deliberately go to and fro to enable gunmen behind them to fire at the security forces or to fire at civilians". There is one simple answer as to why the soldiers should not have been allowed to fire at those women and children, even if they had voluntarily decided to be human shields for the gunmen: they were unarmed.

Furthermore, firing at civilians in such circumstances would contravene the rules of engagement or orders for opening fire associated with internal security operations. I know of no military training or doctrine in the United Kingdom or the British Commonwealth that allows soldiers to open fire on civilians who are not themselves either firing weapons or throwing bombs/grenades at the soldiers. Besides, the legal punishment for obstructing law enforcement is certainly not death! And even if it were, it is not the security forces' right to act as judge, juror and executioner.

In addition, can we say without a measure of doubt that the security forces' assessment that women and children were voluntarily using themselves as human shields was correct? What if the gunmen were forcing these civilians to be human shields? Do we shoot them down nevertheless? I am appalled by the suggestion attributed to Ms Hylton that she could not see the logic in the statement that soldiers or the police should not open fire on women and children acting or being used as human shields during an internal security operation. Her remarks must be among the more obscene made by a legal counsel. I am sure that now, having had many years to reflect on those remarks attributed to her, Ms Hylton may wish she never made them.

It is important to recognise that an internal security operation like the 2001 and 2010 Tivoli operations is not the same as being involved in a state of war. The exigencies of war do not call for a soldier to necessarily observe legal restraints, whereas internal security operations call for great legal restraint and respect for the rights of civilians. This is the dilemma of the soldier, however, as he is trained to 'close with and kill the enemy'. And whereas a soldier may shoot first at an enemy in times of war, during internal security operations he is allowed only to return fire. Military doctrine further prevents soldiers from opening fire on a person carrying say a rifle or rocket launcher, unless that person fired first.

Your editorial also refers to an earlier editorial of March 7, 2014, in which you asked the Opposition JLP to "recommend to the security forces how it should handle a situation as outlined by Ms Hylton". This is a most troubling request, as it is not for any political party to make such a recommendation, and if it were to be made it should be treated with contempt. I know as a certainty that JDF officers are very well trained and know exactly what action to take in those circumstances. They also know that such action does not include opening fire on women and children, whether they are acting as human shields for gunmen voluntarily or not. In other words, your question should have been put to the JDF or JCF. I suspect, though, that for security reasons, they might not wish to make their answer public. However, I know as a fact that officers of the JDF receive training that equips them to deal with similar circumstances and the degree of force to be employed. The "protectors of the state" are not being asked to retreat in the face of criminal attacks, but to simply act within the law and in keeping with their training, which places great emphasis on the need to maintain the highest standards and fairness at all times, even under the most difficult conditions.

Finally, we should be careful not to make statements such as "memories are still afresh of marauding gunmen setting up barriers in Tivoli Gardens and torching police stations to keep security forces at bay...." By using such pronouncements or statements, we are suggesting that the 2010 Tivoli Gardens Commission of Inquiry might well be irrelevant, or need not try to establish the truth at all.

Colonel Allan Douglas is a retired oficer of the Jamaica Defence Force. Comments: alldouglas@aol.com

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