West Kingston Enquiry: Secrecy, Protocol And Dumping Government Documents

Former National Security Minister Dwight Nelson with former Justice Minister Dorothy Lightbourne at the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry. (Credit: Loop Jamaica)

By Susan Goffe, JFJ Campaigner

This piece originally appeared in the (Jamaica Gleaner)

The provision of Cabinet documents came up recently during sittings of the commission of enquiry, particularly after former Prime Minister Bruce Golding provided the commission with copies of briefing reports he had received from the security forces during that period.

Linton Gordon, representing the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), was very strident in the questions he raised about the appropriateness of Mr Golding still having in his possession documents he received as prime minister and his being able to provide the JDF reports to the commission.

Mr Golding suggested the Cabinet secretary be asked to inform the commission on protocols regarding Cabinet documents. He continued, saying there is a decades-long practice that when a minister demits office, he has two options: to take documents in his possession with him or to leave them behind to be destroyed. He said that when Cabinet distributes documents, it keeps the originals for the record and gives ministers copies.

Subsequently, Sir David spoke of his own experience in Barbados, and being allowed to take documents with him when he left the Cabinet. He also mentioned that former PM Owen Arthur had kept all his Cabinet documents, was using them to write a book, and had indicated that he intended to donate them to a foundation for use by the public. Sir David correctly stated that the documents didn’t, after all, belong to the Government.

Destroyed Documents

This issue evolved even further when former Minister of National Security Dwight Nelson gave his testimony. Responding to a question about a document he might have received as minister, Mr Nelson stated that when he left office, he took no documents with him, no files, no folders, not even one sheet of paper. He said that before giving his statement for the enquiry, he had called to find out if any of his documents could be retrieved, but was told no, they had all been destroyed.

It is important that the Government is asked to clarify how this decades-long practice of disposal of ministers’ papers is dealt with in relation to the provisions of the Access to Information Act and the current environment of the public’s entitlement to information held by the Government on its behalf.

Are copies of all documents taken by an outgoing minister kept by the Government? Are documents to be destroyed reviewed prior to destruction and classified or identified in some way? Is a list kept of all documents so destroyed or removed? Even if this was a customary general practice, shouldn’t it have been suspended or delayed given that these documents were held by the minister of national security who had been in office at the time of the May 2010 operation which led to the deaths of more than 70 people, an event which was being investigated and was quite probably going to be the subject of a commission of enquiry?

At this point, it is important to ask if any of the documents destroyed might have had a bearing on the matters before the commission, whether such documents can be identified, and whether originals or copies reside in some other government body.

Terence Williams stated that it was good that Mr Golding had submitted the security forces’ briefing reports and that the commission should keep them as a reference against which to compare the briefing reports to be submitted by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and the JDF. He commented on the history of documents related to cases of prosecutions of the police disappearing by the time the case reached court, and such disappearances being attributed to rats, fires or water damage, for example.

Sir David remarked that it isn’t only in Jamaica that documents disappear, but also in other parts of the Caribbean. Valerie Neita-Robertson, representing the JCF, said that the police force has tried to submit all requested documents by the required deadlines, but that they are actually still trying to find some missing documents.

As the commission of enquiry continues, we will see how some of these issues are resolved and what impact they ultimately have on the enquiry’s ability to complete its mandate successfully. It will also be important to decide if there are any gaps to do with preservation of government documents that are being highlighted during the enquiry, which may need to be addressed.

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