Commentary Jamaica Magazine

Surrendering freedom in a State of Emergency

A State of Emergency is intended as a short-term measure to provide short-term respite, such as is evident in the decline in murder figures for June so far. Remaining in the ‘war’ mode may give an illusion of strong leadership; however, applying wrong remedies can well worsen the ailment. Extending the State of Emergency seems provide diminishing returns because:

1. A State of Emergency is not intended to address crime. It is meant to restore order when the State is placed under threat. To use this measure where it is not merited is to diminish its effect in a crisis

. 2. The situation that brought about the State of Emergency on May 23 no longer exists. At that time, police stations were being fire-bombed, policemen were being ambushed and shot dead, and a community had barricaded itself in defiance of the State. That crisis has been brought under control.

3. Regulations under the State of Emergency do not increase the policing powers of the police The police, under the Constabulary Force Act, have all the powers they need to cordon and curfew, search and seize, arrest and detain.

4. The State of Emergency gives to the police near absolute power over citizens’ liberties. There continue to be reports of corruption and abuse of citizens’ rights in the police force. Extension of the State of Emergency would strengthen the power of the police to disregard citizens’ rights and would increase scope for corrupt behaviour. As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

5. Every single citizen (above or below Cross Roads) is subject to Detention Orders under the State of Emergency. Anyone could be detained for breaching regulations of which the person may or may not be aware.

6. Under the State of Emergency, the courts no longer have a direct role in protecting the liberty of the citizen. The right to habeas corpus is effectively suspended.

7. The Minister of National Security has the power to sign Detention Orders that can detain or restrict any citizen.

8. The Emergency Powers Review Tribunal can hear objections from those who think they are detained wrongfully. This tribunal is not yet ready to hear cases. When it does meet, the public will not be able to attend the tribunal’s meetings. The tribunal does not have the power to act. It can merely make recommendations to the Minister of National Security who signed the orders in the first place.

9. The Minister of National Security is free to ignore the recommendations of the tribunal. The detainees must then wait six months before appealing to the courts for a judicial review of the minister’s decision.

10. For as long as the State of Emergency is in force, citizens (especially citizens without the means to mount a legal defence) lose liberties that the courts can normally protect under habeas corpus. The police already have the power they need to address crime. Increased power in the hands of the police, together with increased loss of liberty for citizens (especially the poor) seems a recipe for increased mistrust between the police and citizens. Addressing crime requires that closing gaps between state and citizen.

Addressing crime requires closing gaps between state and citizen.

About the author

Yvonne McCalla-Sobers