April 21, 2020 – Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) commends the government for its swift and thorough response to COVID-19; recognising the dynamic nature of this situation, which highlights a difficult balance that our leaders must strike. While many important measures have been implemented in the public interest, we have serious concerns with how various restrictions have been imposed and the extent to which continuing this approach may conflict with principles of the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Governments across the world continue to face serious challenges in responding to the complexities of COVID-19; democratic institutions are being tested, as are the principles of rule of law and human rights. One solution that can actually strengthen Jamaica’s COVID-19 response while upholding our core principles as a free and just society is to ensure Parliamentary deliberation and oversight of key measures to respond to COVID-19, and include the contribution of diverse national stakeholders in the decision-making process.
Parliament should explore special legal measures beyond Prime Ministerial Orders to better respond to COVID-19
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the government has been using the Disaster Risk Management Act to issue a range of Prime Ministerial Orders that restrict various rights, freedom, and life functions in an aim to contain the spread of COVID-19. Authorities have announced that failure to comply with various orders will result in arrest and prosecution.
Unlike with other emergency responses, the present approach does not appear to be truly accountable to Parliament – Jamaica’s supreme law-making body and ultimate representatives of the people.
Notwithstanding the best of intentions, the increasing scope and expanding intricacies of these many restrictions since March 13th, require Parliamentary oversight.
While our laws allow for emergency decisions to be made, they never contemplated such a profound delegation of “law-making” power from the Parliament to the Cabinet without any accountability or system of redress for those who may be negatively affected, unable to comply, and find themselves potentially arrested and criminalized.
People will have different abilities to comply with some of the restrictions due to their life circumstances.
For example, the unique vulnerability of those who are homeless, at increased risk of domestic violence, or caring for people who are sick, elderly, or shut-in, need to be taken into consideration as decisions are being made.
Compounding the exclusion of Parliament from its law-making and oversight roles, many Courts across Jamaica have been ordered closed, and the ability of attorneys to operate in a sustained way is uncertain – leaving persons unable to comply with the orders entirely at the mercy and discretion of security forces. This erodes the checks and balances essential to the rule of law which can help ensure our COVID-19 response is always in the public interest.
As many other countries have done, Jamaica’s Parliament should consider special legislative measures to respond to the far-reaching implications of COVID-19 that do not contravene the rule of law. Some countries have created COVID-19 laws that allow for enhanced powers of the government while maintaining checks and balances. Other countries have enacted provisions that address the wide-ranging effects of COVID-19 on many sectors such as education, banking, labour relations, the operation courts, the collection of pensions and other social security benefits, the functioning of the healthcare sector, and caring for the elderly that provide detailed provisions for the functioning of those sectors beyond closure notices on the sole declaration of the Prime Minister.
More national voices needed to improve COVID-19 response, especially for vulnerable groups
Jamaica’s COVID-19 response can vastly benefit from inclusion of key national stakeholders across various sectors in Jamaica. Diverse voices can support Parliamentary review, debate, and refine through virtual means.
Accordingly, Jamaicans for Justice makes the following calls:
Parliament – as the law-making organ of Jamaican society – must have formal role in law to oversee key COVID-19 measures, especially any restrictions on rights and freedom. The increased restrictions on freedom and public life solely based on order from the Prime Minister cannot be sustained.
Parliament should consider special legislative measures to respond to the far-reaching and diverse implications of COVID-19 beyond orders from the Prime Minister. These measures can provide for enhanced operations of government while maintaining checks and balances as well as regulate how certain sectors (e.g. education, finance, courts, labour, etc.) will operate amidst the pandemic.
Parliament should consider perspectives from diverse national stakeholders to improve the COVID-19 response with special attention to the vulnerable and those whose life circumstances may make compliance with certain measures difficult.