State of emergency nonsense
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Monday August 29, 2011 - The Caribbean constitutions give the government of the day substantial discretion to determine the circumstances under which a State of Emergency should be instituted and the presumption is that a responsible government would appreciate the seriousness of this facility and reserve it for only the most extreme cases. This “seriousness” arises from the fact that such a declaration quickly strips the individual of fundamental rights and freedoms that the same constitution makes a considerable effort to protect. Once a state of emergency is declared we understand that the state can invade our privacy, restrict our liberty and presume a level of potential guilt that justifies arbitrary arrest and detention. In such situations, we accept the legitimacy of such action in the interest of the greater good.
Although our constitutions are deliberately vague regarding the circumstances which should give rise to a state of emergency, there is some guidance provided by this same document, along with several precedents both regionally and internationally. The constitution of Barbados provides guidance which is not dissimilar to that of other Caribbean constitutions. It suggests that a state of public emergency would be an occasion such as an imminent “war between Barbados and another State... [an] earthquake, hurricane, flood, fire, outbreak of pestilence, outbreak of infectious disease or other calamity”. It is also helpful to note the same section which continues and speaks to “action [which] has been taken, or is immediately threatened, by any person, of such a nature and on so extensive a scale, as to be likely to endanger the public safety”.
”Trinidad and Tobago has invoked the state of emergency more than other islands”.--Peter Wickham
Precedent is also helpful and the most recent instance was in Jamaica (May 2010) in response to the public disorder in Tivoli Gardens which was a consequence of the Police’s efforts to capture Christopher Coke. In this instance there was a clear breakdown of law and order in that district since both the Police and Army were unable to move freely and detain persons that the authorities wished to have in their custody. In this instance the state of emergency was declared in Kingston, while the remainder of the country was able to continue relatively normally.
In comparison Trinidad and Tobago has invoked the state of emergency more than other islands. There was the first post independence state of emergency during the Black Power Revolution (1970) that was easily justified in light of this chaotic situation that militated against public order. Their second post-independence state of emergency was declared in July 1990 in response to the coup d'état and this lasted two months. In this instance the hostage situation might not have prompted a state of emergency but the looting which reflected a breakdown of public order clearly did.
The appropriateness of the 1995 state of emergency, declared in response to Occah Seapaul’s refusal to resign as Speaker continues to be questioned. In this instance the contentious issue appeared to threaten the functioning of government which is essentially a political issue and not one of public disorder. Fortuitously that declaration was localised and short, but nonetheless appears to have provided the incubator for this more recent initiative.
It is perhaps not necessary for this author to state his reservations regarding the prudence and necessity of this most recent state of emergency which does not appear to satisfy either the prescriptive requirements of the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution, nor the useful precedents established there and elsewhere in the region. A “crime spree” is a most unfortunate development which does threaten public safety but it cannot be argued that a state of public chaos exists in Trinidad and Tobago as a result. The Police have not been denied entry to any location in the country as was the case in Jamaica (2010) and there has not been widespread riot or looting as was the case in 1970 and 1990 respectively. These concerns become even more compelling when one considers the severe dislocation that this declaration has caused to law abiding citizens in that country. These are too numerous to detail here and while was no less inconvenience on previous occasions, the countervailing justification was the existence of public chaos which cannot be argued to exist at this point.
The Police can had have been making arrests and seizures during this period; however the relevant question is whether the Police could have made similar incursions under normal circumstances, using similar intelligence. One well publicised “victory” relates to the arrest of a “gang leader” who sought shelter at a Hotel’s Presidential Suite and paid 75,000.00 in cash. Certainly one would think that such an act would attract the attention of the Police in times of peace or war and the same can be said of several other arrests that have been made. If the Police know the whereabouts (approximate or otherwise) of criminals, gangs or leaders, they can and should apprehend these persons, calling on the good offices of the Military if necessary, which can (and recently has) been done without a state of emergency.
Sadly this action seems to have caught the attention of the St. Kitts and Nevis Opposition which has suggested that their government needs to do the same thing and thankfully that government is more enlightened. A state of emergency in a Petroleum driven economy is one thing but such a situation in a Tourist state is an entirely different matter. The authorities in Trinidad and Tobago would do well to appreciate that the most effective deterrent to crime is the quick capture and conviction of criminals, which requires criminal intelligence and capacity NOT a state of emergency. (Originally published in the Nation News). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter W. Wickham. Peter W. Wickham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).