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States of emergency use must have an end point


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry has reported on the appalling conditions in which she believes detainees are being held under the state of public emergency in St James. She is particularly concerned about abuse of the human rights of detainees. The police high command in charge of the area has refuted the charges. But, from all indications, it is clear that the conditions under which detainees are being held are not ideal. There is the strong suggestion that the minimum standards of care are not being met.

Let us accept that when the states of emergency and the zones of special operations were introduced our jails and prisons were already in a state of dilapidation. Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck has spoken of the disgusting situation in our jails and detention facilities. He could express similar disgust at the state of the housing facilities that obtain at many police stations as well. Some work has been done by the Ministry of National Security but there is so much more to be done to really bring them to livable conditions, where our men and women in uniform can feel really satisfied that they are being recognised for the work they do.

One would not expect that conditions would change dramatically because of the implementation of these emergency measures. With what obtained before, it was certain that placing an additional 3,000 to 4,000 detainees in these facilities would add to an already overburdened and unacceptable situation.

No society that is respectful of the human rights of its citizens will scrape up thousands of its young men and women, deprive them of their freedom on the suspicion that they are a danger to the society, and hold them in the conditions of the sort highlighted by the public defender. We are not expecting them to be housed in a Sandals Resort facility, but at the very minimum, livable space must be provided.

To the extent that there is veracity to the public defender's report, the Andrew Holness-led Administration must take immediate steps to remedy the situation. He has spoken consistently of the need for the security forces to respect the human rights of people in the areas under emergency. My understanding is that, by and large, the security forces have been respectful of people. Citizens in the areas of operation have spoken of their friendliness and decorum. But being hospitable is one thing. Depriving people of their fundamental right to freedom is quite another.

One of the most important rights that a citizen has is the right to freedom, which should never be breached on the mere suspicion of malfeasance. The Government, and by extension the security forces, must weigh carefully any desire to so deprive a citizen of his or her freedom or, having done so, determine how long a person will be held without due judicial process.

One young lady speaking on Nationwide recalled her fright and horror when the security forces decided to detain her. She lamented that she was not even allowed to brush her teeth, take a bath, or change her clothes. One wonders as to the hygienic considerations that are given especially to women in these situations. Prolonged detention of detainees may see the society sowing the wind in which it may very well reap the whirlwind of hardened criminality of those detained. This unintended consequence would be a negation of what we are trying to achieve in reducing crime in the society.

The debate on the conditions of detention facilities brings into sharp relief the continuance of these states of emergency. Recognising that they are still popular among the people in the areas of operation and the wider society, the Opposition has reluctantly and repeatedly voted for their continuance. There is no doubt that these operations have stemmed the murder rate, especially in Montego Bay which was fast becoming a lost city to murderous criminality. This is part of the reason Commissioner of Police Antony Anderson is resolute that they should continue.

But there is some merit to the Opposition's concern as to the continuance of these emergency powers. While there may be compelling reasons for their continuance in the short term, there is even more compelling reason that the suspension of the constitutional freedoms of Jamaicans cannot persist without a termination point in sight. The emergency powers given to the security forces under a state of emergency — which ought to be very rare phenomena — are vast and far-reaching. With all the best intentions of the security forces, there has to come a point at which the society must have a serious conversation about its willingness to entrust our democratic ideals to the benevolence of men and women in uniform. At any given time, members of the force can hide behind or find refuge in the special powers they have been granted. What happens then?

At some point these powers have to end. I have contended, in tandem with other views, that it is the sustained presence of the security forces in the zones of operations that is the most important threat to criminal intentions in these areas. Consistently, people in these areas say they do not want the security forces to be removed, for their very presence guarantees stability and freedom. Just to see them, especially the soldiers, strikes fear in the hearts of criminals and a sense of security in that of the law-abiding citizen.

There is no compelling reason the Government cannot have the security forces present under enhanced security measures in areas where they are needed. They do not need the declaration of a state of emergency to achieve this; neither do they need special powers beyond what they now have to do an effective job. What would be absent is the suspension of the constitutional rights of citizens and the empowerment of the security forces with special powers. The prime minister would not have to come to Parliament periodically to get the permission as now obtains. Periodic reports on success or failure would, however, be in order.

This would necessitate more boots on the ground, as this column has consistently called for. The Government would focus attention with laser-like intensity on the recruitment and training of personnel so that we would have more forces to be deployed in trouble spots. This will take great political will and not the kind of timidity that we often see from our leaders. Two hundred recruits are nothing to boast about given the gravity of the situation we face. The commissioner of police will never be comfortable calling for the emergency situations to end until he has a greater complement of personnel to deploy around the country. Does the Holness Administration, particularly National Security Minister Horace Chang, have the will to put the resources in place to have the job done? We will see.


Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or