The quake and the cross
One week ago I did not anticipate having to write the following sentence: “I was discussing with a class of law students whether Jamaica made a major blunder in absenting itself from the vote concerning a proposed truce in Gaza when an earthquake rudely shook us to the core.”
So my attention begins with the quake. No adult Jamaican resident may realistically claim to be unexposed to the realities of living in an earthquake zone. Indeed, I expect at least one occasional columnist to issue a forceful reminder that he has recently warned us all about the risks of living atop a major fault line in the crust of the Caribbean.
But we live on, and we should give prayerful thanks that we have been spared the worst. The notion, however, that there have been more than 50 aftershocks since last Monday provides no comfort, even for the most stout-hearted among us.
Acts of God
In legal terminology, earthquakes and some other natural phenomena are sometimes referred to as “acts of God”. This hardly seems fair to the Most High. True, the tremors are not normally actions of human agents, but on what basis may modern people conclude that God has opted to inflict mayhem and destruction indiscriminately upon the righteous and the vile? Perhaps earthquakes should be classified as “acts of no one” or, if we must, “omissions of God”.
And here is another quasi-terminological quibble: Why don’t we name our earthquakes in hurricane style? Each year we have a whole line-up of fancy names for destructive winds and rain – Charlie, Gilbert, Ivan, Flora, and so on – but we are left to speak about “the 1993 earthquake”; “the one in MoBay in 1950 odd”; “the 1907 Kingston earthquake”; “the 1692 Port Royal quake” and so on. It may be that the official name-creators do not wish to tempt fate by listing prospective names before the quake arrives, but they do it for hurricanes, so there seems to be no point of analytical distinction. And, in any event, the quake could be named on an ex post facto basis.
The wag might suggest that if we give names to earthquakes, this could allow students in the Baby Challenge Quiz (BCQ) to study up on the natural shocks.
One last point should be noted on the hurricane/earthquake dichotomy. The Jamaican Constitution treats both natural phenomena in the same way for the purposes of determining how to identify a “period of public disaster”. In either case, the governor general must be satisfied that the disaster precipitated by the hurricane or earthquake has actually occurred (if a literal reading of Section 20(2)(c) of the constitution is supported).
But is this a sound approach? Clearly we cannot predict the arrival of the earthquake, so it is logical to await the fateful moment. Contrast this, however, with the hurricane, which may have been spotted halfway across the Atlantic and which is gathering power as it heads towards the Blue Mountains. According to the literal reading of the constitution, the governor general cannot declare a state of emergency until the hurricane strikes. By this time, telecommunication and other infrastructural systems may be down and the island generally may be crippled. Perhaps our constitutional review will consider allowing the imminence of a hurricane expressly to serve as the basis for identifying a public disaster.
As I mentioned in my first paragraph, supra, “the main October 2023 Jamaica earthquake” struck in the midst of a discussion on the Jamaican stance on the proposed truce concerning the Hamas-Israel confrontation. The Government of Jamaica has been firmly criticised for its absence from the vote and has responded that there was “a technical cross in communication that led to Jamaica not voting”.
Gaza is aflame. Israel has been illegally attacked and is now publicly accused by numerous states and huge numbers in many communities of responding illegally. In the face of a grave and massive humanitarian crisis, Jamaica has a duty to walk to the wicket. It could have marshalled arguments on one side or the other, on both sides, or it could have abstained with an explanation. But we did none of the above-mentioned.
This may be the most important resolution to be considered by the United Nations General Assembly in a generation. And Jamaica was reportedly chairing a Caricom group on the issue. And the meeting to address the matter was a Special Emergency Session of the General Assembly. And Jamaica has had a long, distinguished history of exercising leadership in international relations – punching above its weight with, for instance, Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, and Don Mills. And others will pay attention to our views as we are not perceived as having a special axe to grind in the Mid-East permacrisis.
For all these reasons the Government should have voted or abstained with reasons. It did not. Now, then, it should explain fully the “technical cross in communication that led to Jamaica not voting”. How did it arise, and at which end of the line? What were the voting instructions sent and when were they sent? If we wish to matter, we must make ourselves matter.
Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie, CD, is professor of international law at The University of the West Indies, Mona.