Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CARIBBEAN: Jamaican Groups Reject Regional Court

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, May 16 2003 (IPS) - While the region’s governments are busy organising the inauguration of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), expected to take place in a blaze of colour and ceremony in a matter of months, Jamaican groups continue to press leaders here to reject the body.

Jamaica’s participation is expected, but it will belie the heated debate that has ignited feverish opposition to abandoning the UK-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the country’s court of last resort.

The Privy Council is the court of final appeal for a number of Commonwealth countries.

But the governments of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have stated that establishing a regional judicial tribunal will complete the region’s course of sovereignty.

Even as Jamaica’s ruling Peoples National Party (PNP) is establishing the legislative framework that will enable the nation to join the CCJ, several civic groups are trying to rally public support to force the government to backtrack.

The Jamaican chapter of the government watchdog group Transparency International, the Farquharson Institute of Public Affairs, a local think tank and advocacy group, along with the local human rights groups Jamaicans for Justice and the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights and the Jamaican Bar Association have consistently maintained their opposition to Kingston joining the court.

In a recent full-page newspaper advertisement, the groups cited their main concerns as: funding for the court; its permanence; the lack of public awareness of the issues surrounding its establishment; and their call for a referendum on joining the CCJ.

The referendum call is one of the most contentious aspects of the debate.

Prime Minister Percival Patterson has been adamant in pointing out that there is no legal requirement for a referendum, and none will be held. But leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, who as Prime Minister in 1988 supported creating the CCJ, has promised that if the government joins the court without a referendum, a future JLP government will ”abandon the Caribbean Court of Justice”.

”Times have changed drastically,” said Seaga, ”and circumstances now compel us to retain the security of what we know to be a tried and tested system of justice in the Privy Council, rather than to venture with a new institution … This is not a time for adventure,” he told Parliament recently.

The president of the Marcus Garvey Peoples Political Party, Michael Lorne, dismisses the call. ”You’re just going to have another political campaign, the greens (Opposition Jamaica Labour Party supporters) come out, the oranges (ruling Peoples National Party supporters) come out, the voting comes out along party lines, not necessarily along lines of issues.”

”I don’t think we need a referendum either morally or otherwise to set up this court. This court is necessary,” Lorne says.

Patterson and other Caribbean leaders say that they have accepted the majority of recommendations made by regional civic groups.

For example, the groups were concerned that given the spotty record of Caribbean governments’ contributions to existing regional institutions, such as the University of the West Indies, the stability of the future court was questionable.

In response, the leaders mandated the Caribbean Development Bank to raise 100 million U.S. dollars for the establishment of a trust fund to finance the operations of the court.

Jamaica’s contribution will be 27 million dollars, but local civic groups are now questioning the wisdom of taking on more debt.

They also want the CCJ entrenched in the constitutions of all member countries, to ensure its permanence.

Ending Jamaica’s right of appeal to the Privy Council without addressing these issues, say the groups in their joint statement, is a ”irresponsible and high-handed action and a dangerous precedent”.

Although the issue of capital punishment is not a factor in the current debate, human rights groups have previously accused CARICOM governments of wanting to withdraw from the Privy Council because of rulings that have made it difficult to carry out executions.

The leaders have repeatedly denied this, but government officials, including Patterson, have publicly expressed serious concern about the Privy Council rulings. The last execution in Jamaica took place in 1988.

International human rights group Amnesty International last year castigated Kingston for ”attacking” the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and called the administration to instead ensure ”that the constitutional rights of those facing death at the hands of the state are protected”.

The Marcus Garvey Peoples Political Party disagrees with many objections to the new court. The small party, with no seats in Parliament, is composed primarily of Rastafarians, a religious group that believes in repatriation to Africa and opposes any vestiges of colonialism.

”We cannot continue to be an independent country, or at least to appear independent and keep one of the legacies of colonialism, which is their court system. Your final appellate court system must come within your hands, must come within African hands. It must come within our destiny,” says the party’s president, Michael Lorne.

An attorney-at-law, Lorne does share concerns that powerful political and business interests could influence the judges of the CCJ, and suggests that electing the judges could eliminate those concerns.

Currently, a broad-based Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission will choose the majority of judges, except for the president, who will be chosen by CARICOM leaders.

It is clear that the court will go ahead with or without Jamaica. CARICOM officials point out that creating the CCJ requires the participation of only three member states, and the agreement establishing it has already been ratified by Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.

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