Minister, step aside!
Throughout my political life, in Government and Opposition, I have tried to maintain a bold, objective stance when making decisions.
I have always asked myself: Will my actions benefit Jamaica and Jamaicans, and are they principled? Therefore, even though I am a representative of the People’s National Party (PNP), I will give credit when it is due to a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) member or minister when they act accordingly.
I have also avoided tribally criticising ministers of Government or calling on them to resign, mainly because I know the difficulties of being in such a position, having been there myself. Therefore, my call for the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith to step aside last week was not taken lightly, and is not personal.
There was once a time when Jamaica was the leading voice on international struggles against colonialism and racism, even before our Independence from the British Empire.
The first time was when Norman Manley, even before Independence, led the world in taking a stance against apartheid South Africa by refusing to allow Jamaica to trade with that country.
Since then, the policies of successive administrations have been founded on:
1) Respect for a nation’s sovereignty
2) Respect for human rights and self-determination for citizens of all countries
3) A non-aligned stance
4) Economic development for all
Michael Manley’s unrelenting support for forging alliances and diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1972, Brazil, China, and the League of African Leaders and PJ Patterson’s leadership of Caricom and engagement of Venezuela have reaped immeasurable benefits for Jamaica. And over the decades, we came to the realisation that Jamaica’s influence was even more substantial as a team within the international community.
But it was not only PNP leaders who ensured we maintained our courage in specific global affairs. JLP leaders did so as well. For example, Alexander Bustamante, following the lead of Norman Manley, subsequently decided not to sit in the same room with the South African delegation; Hugh Shearer proposed that the UN holds a special observation of human rights provisions universally; Edward Seaga, in meetings of Commonwealth heads, took a strong stance in dismantling apartheid in South Africa; and Bruce Golding was a vigorous proponent of PetroCaribe and beneficial relationships with China and opted to attend the PetroCaribe meeting in Cuba instead of accepting an invitation to the White House.
For these and other reasons, Jamaica’s diplomatic input was highly sought after by our allies. We were assertive, courageous, and enlightened in our foreign policies and global diplomacy. Moreover, Jamaica had and still has seasoned foreign service personnel who have served us with distinction over many years.
As a result, we developed an enviable reputation for courage and activism in the international arena. Our consistent approach to making principled decisions served us well, earning Jamaica the distinction of chairing the G77 countries and China and a seat twice at the UN Security Council.
Today, Jamaica appears primarily silent and compliant, destroying our enviable reputation of courage and activism in the international arena and eroding years of consistently approaching decision-making on principle, which has brought us desired results.
Over the past six years, under the current minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, we have acted antithetical to our past, and the public keeps asking: How come?
December 2017: The US suggested that it would cut aid to any country if they didn’t recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the UN. Jamaica submits and abstains from voting on a position. We had consistently voted to support the two-State solution for Israel and Palestine, so this was a reversal of our long-held position.
February 2018: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Jamaica — as the prospective chair of Caricom, we don’t invite our Caricom member states for their input to discuss matters concerning the region.
March 2018: US President Donald Trump imposes tariffs on several countries for imported aluminium and steel. Minister Johnson Smith says Jamaica will not be affected as we were not producing steel or aluminium then, failing to recognise that we imported steel and aluminium on the world market.
January 2019: The Government publicly announces its intention to expropriate the shares in PDVSA, the Venezuelan State-owned oil and natural gas company, and support the US resolution at the Organization of American States (OAS) not to recognise Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Never in our history have we done this. This decision was made after the Venezuelan Government and people helped to save our economy through the PetroCaribe Agreement. Now Venezuela is supplying oil to our Caricom neighbours and will not countenance Jamaica.
March 2019: Prime Minister Andrew Holness meets privately President Trump. The context within which this meeting was held implied that Jamaica will not take additional loans from China.
January 2020: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Jamaica, and we comply with the US request to only to invite eight of 15 Caricom countries to meet with him, excluding the Caricom chair, Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
February 2021: India begins distributing COVID-19 vaccines to Caricom countries. Barbados was the first to receive and Jamaica was last.
February 2022: The Government bungles the safe return of Jamaican students from Ukraine as a result of Russia’s invasion of that country.
April 2022: Jamaica announces its bid to run for Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, much to the surprise of its Caricom partners, and begins a flamboyant campaign. Jamaica loses, and it is clear why — Caricom and Africa did not vote unanimously as a block for us, which was a shock.
October 2023: Jamaica is “out of the room” and absent from the most recent UN resolution for the protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations in Gaza during the war between Israel and Hamas.
The minister of foreign affairs’ last decision or advice to the Government is the most egregious and disgraceful. The Government’s excuse for Jamaica’s absence in the vote is unsatisfactory. The minister stated in a release that consultations did not conclude in time for Jamaica to participate.
This vote marked the UN General Assembly’s first response to the humanitarian tragedy resulting from Israel’s collective onslaught on the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza. The resolution was adopted with 120 countries in favour, 14 against, and 45 abstaining.
Furthermore, there was no need for consultation, Jamaica is chair of the Caucus of Caricom Foreign Ministers, which had already taken an agreed position in support; therefore, a simple vote of ‘yes’ with our other Caricom members states was appropriate. Instead, we have trampled on years of our courageous global activism.
The Caucus of Caricom Foreign Ministers is also an institutionalised body in the Treaty of Chaguaramas because one of the main activities is the formation of foreign policy positions to give ourselves, as small nations, clout in the international arena. So when the group leader is MIA at voting time, it is shameful and shocking.
The UN is perhaps the most qualified body to provide interlocutory support to help proud nations secure a pathway for a negotiated settlement during this time of turmoil. We should have been resolute at the UN, showing solidarity with the struggle.
Jamaica’s respected international stature has dramatically fallen under this minister of foreign affairs. Coming out of last week, Jamaica will need to have sober conversations with our regional and international partners to heal what seems to now be a fragmented relationship.
Our reggae music throughout the ages has been a vanguard and beacon for the powerless and symbolises our philosophy of how all people should be treated. It has been and continues to be a rallying inspiration for the oppressed. I think Bob Marley immortalises our position best in War: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war…”
Let us be reminded of who we are and what we mean to so many people as we signal a new energy and reimagine our foreign policy approaches to build bridges and restore our leadership in the rest of the world.
Only clear, critical thought is good enough in the current global landscape, not miscalculation, mistiming, and imprecision.