Human rights advocates respond to imposition of a State of Emergency in St. Catherine

What our local media like to call “the crime monster” continues to haunt us all, stalking us – ever in our footsteps. Rather like the monster in the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” its presence is always palpable in some way or another. But unlike the sci-fi monster, crime doesn’t live in the “Upside Down.” It is very much in our right-way-up world. It is a daily reality for many Jamaicans.

After the broad-daylight mayhem in Spanish Town last week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness in an early morning press briefing declared a State of Emergency in St. Catherine, the large and densely populated parish of which Spanish Town is the Capital. The following day, a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court found that regulations governing the 2018 State of Public Emergency breached the constitutional rights of a claimant, who was held for several months without charge.

There has been much discussion and debate. Here is how two human rights advocacy groups responded – Jamaicans for Justice and Stand Up for Jamaica.

Jamaicans for Justice says that “fear cannot be a driver for public policy.”

Stand Up for Jamaica asks: “Can the State of Emergency declared in St. Catherine still stand?” in light of Friday’s court ruling. Let us see.

JFJ Calls Out Government On Using Human Rights as an Excuse for Failure to Fight Crime

Friday, June 17, 2022 (Kingston, Jamaica): Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is concerned about the direction the Government of Jamaica appears to be heading in, which suggests that sacrificing some rights is the best way to fight crime.

Like all Jamaicans, JFJ is extremely concerned about the pervasive crime in the society, particularly the spate of killings of Jamaican citizens. We remain resolute, however, that fear cannot be a driver for public policy, nor can there ever be sentiments espoused by the authorities that to tackle crime, the infringement of human rights is acceptable.

JFJ is challenging comments made by the Prime Minister that the legal and rights debates have hindered the government’s ability to effectively tackle crime. These types of statements merely seek to excuse the government’s failure to tackle crime.

Further, the government’s ill-advised approach to crime fighting tramples on citizens’ rights and is concerning. For example, we note hyperbolic statements by the PM regarding the death penalty, and proposed mandatory minimum sentence under the firearm legislation.

Most recently, the government has signalled its intent to propose new legislation that would see individuals charged with murder or unlicensed firearm denied bail. Alarmingly, the leadership has also indicated that it wants to “review” the two-thirds majority voting requirement of the Emergency Powers Regulations, which if changed, would dismantle and undermine parliamentary checks and balances.

Such proposals would result in the removal of judicial discretion and is an attack on the principle of separation of powers. Also, they reflect an ideology that crime will only be reduced by draconian measures. While such measures have resulted in temporary drops in violent crimes, there is no sustained reduction as criminals simply play hop-scotch with the police by migrating to neighbouring parishes.

One More SOE is a defeat!

Stand Up for Jamaica is concerned that another State of Emergency (SoE) was declared by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and we are yet to see any legitimate and sustainable crime-fighting strategies.

Mr. Holness announced the imposition of a State of Public Emergency for St. Catherine, which has seen a spike in gun violence this week and which he describes as a ‘National Crisis.’

While we acknowledge the situation needs immediate attention, we are not supportive of the action as it is repeatedly used, and it is a clear failure to address the issue of crime. It is concerning that the government’s use of the State of Public Emergency is the only tool being considered to address the issue as it does not guarantee the success or ensure the safety and security of law-abiding citizens.

In a landmark decision just this morning, the Constitutional Court chaired by Chester Stamp delivered a judgment that Rushane Clarke’s fundamental rights have been violated. The State of Emergency Regulations in 2018 were declared unconstitutional, as they gave authorities undue unfettered power to abrogate the rights of a class of persons. Damages of over J$17.8 million were awarded. Can the SoE declared in St. Catherine still stand?

We believe this method has created mayhem. It often results in the infringement of the human rights of the most vulnerable, which creates a divide among citizens and security forces. We have seen many instances of confrontation. Lawmakers should ensure that members of security forces are trained in human rights and conflict resolution to deal with civilian engagement. In addition, the SOE will add more financial strain to some communities, as people are not able to move outside of their community. 

We are calling for the Government to develop a comprehensive, effective, and sustainable crime-fighting plan that will stem the widespread criminal activities. There should be a clear plan to develop community policing in troubled areas. Use alternative projects, job creation, social interventions, and conflict resolution programs that will allow Jamaicans to get involved in the decision in fighting crime.

It is everyone’s responsibility.

This woman cries after her son was taken into custody in Flanker, Montego Bay, during the public state of emergency in St James in 2018. (Photo: Adrian Frater/Gleaner)

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