JFJ/Observer Column Article: A test of the maturity of our democracy, not a political football

The following opinion was submitted to the Jamaica Observer by Jamaicans For Justice

On February 24, the government released the names of the three commissioners and the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the long-awaited Commission of Enquiry (COE) into the May 2010 events in Western Kingston. While Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) welcomes this development, we have a number of remaining concerns.

The process of public consultation undertaken by the government has led to improvements in the TOR. There are now, for example, two TORs, which focus on “the chain of command in relation to the decisions concerning operations by the security forces…the respective responsibilities of each person in that chain of command” and “whether there was any dereliction of duty or unlawful conduct…attributable to any person… in that chain of command”.

Also, the TOR dealing with violation of rights has been strengthened to mandate inquiry into “whose rights were violated, and the manner and extent of such violations, and by whom such violations were perpetrated”.

It is disappointing, however, that the TOR do not spell out the specific allegations of human rights abuses for inquiry, which is in contrast to the specific allegations about civilians’ actions that are clearly spelt out.

Additionally, there are no TOR on the following: circumstances and conditions of detention; missing persons; planning and oversight of security operations; assistance of any foreign state or agency; the possibility of future compensation.

Also absent is the assessment of security operations against Jamaica’s international obligations and accepted international standards for the use of force. And the commission is not specifically required to make any recommendations or to refer any evidence suggesting criminal liability to the relevant State agencies for further action.

The announced commissioners have requisite experience to enable them to conduct a thorough enquiry. However, the appointment of Ms Velma Hylton, QC requires re-visiting, given her involvement in the 2002 Tivoli COE. Broader consultation – beyond that of prime minister and leader of the opposition – would have allowed for these concerns to be dealt with prior to the appointments.

In an article in July 2010, Judge Patrick Robinson wrote:
“Independence means nothing if we cannot do better than the British and inquire into not only the threat to national security to which the security forces responded, but also the terrible loss of human lives in Tivoli Gardens. Fail to inquire and we fail those who died in 1831, 1865 and 1938 to secure the independence we now have, and we also fail ourselves.”

This COE is a test of the maturity of our democracy. It must not be allowed to become a political football, but must be conducted with the seriousness it deserves. If this is to happen, it means that the broader public will need to remain engaged, for our political parties have shown over the decades their willingness to place political expediency above the good of Jamaica.