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CCJ tantrums

Published: 
Wednesday, May 30, 2018

In all of CARICOM’s 45 years of existence, there has been nothing as subversive to the social and political status quo as the emergence of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). If we get this thing to work, change can come to the current environment in which our justice system appears not to be serving its intended purpose.

Between 2001 and 2003, 12 countries signed on to the agreement establishing a court that would have two clear, but divisible, functions. One of these roles was to have a mechanism to adjudicate on matters related to the Treaty of Chaguaramas—the binding international agreement establishing CARICOM.

All CARICOM countries, with the exception of Montserrat and The Bahamas, are subject to this jurisdiction of the court. To say that “T&T is not a part of the CCJ” is thus an ignorant, nonsensical statement.

The second, and more controversial, feature of the CCJ is its role as a court of last resolve in both civil and criminal matters.

The former UNC administration had to be reminded that cherry-picking this was untenable when it was proposed that T&T engage the CCJ in the civil jurisdiction and not the criminal (unless an amended agreement was made).

More recently, if we were to take former Barbados prime minister Freundel Stuart’s threat to withdraw from the CCJ seriously, we would have had to ask questions about what he really meant by this.

There was the famous 2013 case of Jamaican national Shanique Myrie which was settled in favour of Myrie when the court ruled in its “original” jurisdiction, and there was the May 16 ruling on the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote in the May 24 Barbados election when the CCJ acted as a court of final appeal.

In both instances, the court ruled against Barbados, though the litigants came from countries that have not yet signed on to the CCJ as their final court of appeal. This is perhaps the “disrespect” referred to in Stuart’s tantrum.

If he had won the election and followed through on the threat, we would have had the chance to test what Stuart really meant. For one, if it was that Barbados would remove itself entirely out of the CCJ, this would have also signified Barbados’ withdrawal from the CARICOM process. The CCJ is an integral part of the CSME deal.

And this tells us another story about the CCJ and its treatment by regional governments, which is that the role of this important tool of independence can so easily be the subject of childish peeve, pique, and hysteria. There is no way electors in the referenda required in most countries can be shielded from this.

We recall, for instance, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s remarkable outburst in 2005 that the court lacked East Indian judges and was therefore unacceptable. This position was eventually reviewed to solely cater for civil suits.

The current Rowley administration meanwhile claims to be interested in moving forward with full accession, save for a required three-fifths majority in Parliament to make it a reality. We can guess how far that will go. It also does not appear to be a priority and was mentioned nowhere in the PNM’s 2015 manifesto.

Since its inauguration on April 16, 2005, the CCJ has also not turned out to be a “hanging court” as first propagandised by its detractors, neither has it been the subject of political control as also predicted by some—witness Freundel Stuart, for example.

Had either been the case, vengeance-filled countries plagued by violent crime would have been in a long queue to sign up, and countries such as Barbados, which have fully engaged the process, would have had important judgments routinely delivered in their favour.

In the meantime, with only four countries on board, people of this region are missing out on an opportunity to collectively address centuries of second-class citizenship in our own space. There are politicians out there making a lot of noise about independence and liberation whose hypocrisy is laid bare by appalling ambivalence in this important matter.

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