Critics of SOEs are patriotic Jamaicans too
The Andrew Holness-led Administration has once again declared a state of emergency (SOE) in three parishes, hoping to suppress violent criminality in these areas.
This is so even as the use of SOEs as a crime-fighting tool remain controversial. Those who support the measure, certainly the Government, believe that they save lives in the short term. Any measure that does this in a country riven with violent criminality cannot be frowned upon. The suppression of violent criminals in hot spots is most welcomed, understandably, by those who live in these areas and who have to cringe in fear as the warring factions have their day. These residents are mostly supportive of these measures.
Those who oppose these measures, the Opposition being the most prominent among them, believe that while they may save lives, their persistent use in this way is unconstitutional. Furthermore, they prevent the Government from coming up with long-term measures that can really tame the crime monster. They give the veneer of something being done but are wholly inadequate to deal with the country’s long-term crime problems.
The arguments on both sides of the divide have validity. A Government has a right under the constitution to declare a state of emergency whenever it believes that situations in the country warrants it. It is possible and may even be necessary for this to be used temporarily to fight crime. But what I find disconcerting about the Government’s approach is a seeming lack of appreciation for what a state of emergency really is as defined in the Jamaican Constitution. They are reserved for situations in which the very existence of the State is threatened; when situations are so grave that the fundamental rights of citizens have to be suspended in service to the security of the State. Thus, they were not intended to be used often or over extended periods. They should, in fact, be as rare as hen’s teeth. That is why the constitution gives the Government the power for 14 days, after which it has to go to the Parliament to seek support for an extension and ostensibly to provide a rationale for its continuation.
So a state of emergency is a very serious matter. My concern is that, given its repeated use as a crime-fighting tool, the Government is not sufficiently seized of the grave nature of a state of emergency. Because its use has become so routine in fighting crime, the time may very well come when you have to declare a real emergency and people merely hiss their teeth and say, “Cho, a nuh nutten.” Then it will be the proverbial case of the boy who cried wolf.
We have had the sad history of states of emergency being abused in Jamaica. The most prominent being in the 1970s when the Michael Manley-led Administration declared a state of emergency before the general election, which resulted in leading members of the Opposition party being detained. I would sympathise with the now-retired veteran politician Pearnel Charles if he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) consequent on his inordinate detention during this period. The Commission of Enquiry into the incident by then Chief Justice Kenneth Smith found the measure to have been unwarranted; that the State was not under the kind of threat projected by the People’s National Party Administration. It was clear that the declaration was tantamount to political use of the powers of emergency to gain an advantage in the general election to be later had.
The point is that there are all kinds of spurious reasons that can be advanced by those in power as a rationale for a state of emergency. This is why we have to be concerned when it has become apparent that using it as a crime-fighting tool has become routinised. Such approach nullifies the efficacy of these measures and may very well render future emergencies impotent when they are sorely needed. Then the national security of the country would be severely compromised and the stage set for the overthrow of the existing order, as drastic, severe, and yes, dictatorial powers may have to be assumed to deal with the presenting problem.
This is the main reason this column does not countenance the Government’s routine use in fighting crime. There are those who spuriously suggest that critics of these measures do not love Jamaica or Jamaicans who have to face violent criminals in their communities. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a disingenuous argument which ignores the veracity of the points being made by the critics while giving false comfort to the belief that these measures really work in cauterising crime. Those who criticise the use of SOEs to fight crime are no less patriotic than those who would want to see one on every street corner in Jamaica.
The Government must bend its energy behind the Enhanced Securities Measures Act, which seems to be bogged down in the Parliament, and get it passed. It cannot be outside of our remit as a people to come up with the right kind of legislation to protect ourselves from violent marauders, even if our fundamental rights have to be temporarily suspended.
The prime minister would be well advised to get the legislation back on the front burner. The last thing he would want to do is give the country the impression that the Government has become bankrupt of ideas to fight crime.
While it must be congratulated for spending billions of dollars to further strengthen the capabilities of the security forces in training, mobility, and intelligence gathering, there is legislative work to be done in complementing the arduous task of these forces. Over-reliance on SOEs may very well militate against these efforts.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life, and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.