Denis Solomon 1,000 words
The Chamber of Commerce column in Wednesdays Express, once more putting the case of our unthinking citizens for the resumption of hanging, is no less meretricious for being soberly written. It starts by trotting out all the arguments about strict application of the law being a deterrent to crime. It goes on to state that the law of Trinidad and Tobago, providing as it does all the necessary guarantees of due process and mercy, requires convicted murderers to be executed. Appeals to the international human rights bodies are just a delaying tactic and the Attorney General should therefore withdraw this country from the protocols setting them up. The Privy Council is described as notoriously abolitionist, but the writer does not suggest we withdraw from that. The obstacle of Pratt and Morgan, the article says, can be overcome by speeding up the whole process.
These arguments are fallacious enough by themselves, without the subsidiary ones with which the writer tries to flesh them out. First of all, the argument about the inevitability of punishment being a deterrent to crime takes no account of the fact that killing may be a crime different in kind from other crimes. It is not always committed by criminals, but often by ordinary people in moments of extreme mental pressure. But more importantly, even brutal and premeditated murders are not necessarily deterrable by the existence of an automatic death penalty. A society can degenerate to the point where it produces people who will kill regardless of the consequences. In that case the remedy cannot lie in society increasing the brutalisation by killing them too. It merely enables unthinking members of the Chamber of Commerce to convince themselves that they are doing something to cope with crime.
Even if there were due process in Trinidad and Tobago it would be irrelevant to the argument about deterrence. But due process exists only on paper, not in practice. Hanging is an irrevocable punishment. Given the corruption of our police and the inefficiency of our judicial system, nobody would seriously claim that innocent people have not been hanged in Trinidad and Tobago. I can think of at least one documented case of a police attempt to frame two men for murder. There is at present in jail on a murder charge a simpleton whom everyone concerned, including some police, are convinced was incapable of the crime, and who was picked up by the police just for the sake of making an arrest.
The article further claims that Pratt and Morgan is illogical because if life in prison is preferable to death, delay in carrying out the execution cannot be a denial of rights. This is nonsense. What Pratt and Morgan is saying is that delay means death plus mental torture, which is cruel and unusual, and the relief is the removal of death when the delay becomes unconscionable. It is in this context that the argument about delaying tactics also falls down. Many courts, for example in India, have accepted the principle that delay, however caused, is ground for reprieve, because human beings must be expected to do everything possible to avoid death.
Instead of quoting India, the Chamber article quotes the United States, forgetting that the United States Supreme Court, before it granted the states the right to take their own decisions on the matter, abolished the death penalty, on the ground that the penalty itself, never mind any delay in carrying it out, was cruel and unusual. The United States, too, is a perfect refutation of the deterrence argument, since in Texas, the state which has carried out the greatest number of executions since resumption, the murder rate has not dropped.
As for the human rights committees, to describe them as political is tendentious. International does not necessarily mean political. The commissions are not composed of political representatives but of jurists selected in their personal capacity for their eminence in the area of human rights. One of their main purposes is to protect the citizen against political abuses. It is also meaningless to say that Britain is not a member of these commissions. Britain is not a Latin American country, and has no need to adhere to the UN commission protocol because it already recognises the European human rights mechanism. It has in fact accepted, and incorporated into its domestic law, decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that went against it, the most recent being the ban on corporal punishment in schools.
In suggesting to the Attorney General that he simply inform the human rights bodies that we withdraw from their optional protocols the Chamber of Commerce is sharing the Attorney Generals arrogant contempt for Parliamentary democracy. Two wrongs do not make a right. Trinidad and Tobagos adhesion to the Treaty and Protocol was not debated in Parliament and its signature of them was not ratified by Parliament. This is a blatant infringement by authoritarian government of standard parliamentary practice. If this government has any respect for Parliament it cannot contemplate denouncing an international agreement without the approval of the legislature. Furthermore, the difference implied by the Chamber article, and also by the Attorney General in the Status Report so much admired by the Chamber, between withdrawing from the Privy Council and withdrawing from the Protocols is false. There are lawyers, some of them retentionists, who believe that either process should be subject to a special majority, since they would both abolish an existing right.
The Chamber of Commerce also seems to forget that the Attorney General is on record as favouring withdrawing from the Privy Council, in favour of a West Indian Court of appeal, for reasons unconnected with the death penalty. The Chamber agrees with him about hanging but not about a change in the legal system that has many real arguments in its favour. What it amounts to is that the Chamber of Commerce wants to keep the white mans court as long as it doesnt prevent us hanging black people.
Copyright © Denis Solomon Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon