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Un-Conventional Measures

Denis Solomon • count words

The Convention protected citizens of this country against a number of abuses of human rights that have nothing to do with cruel and unusual punishment. Privacy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, are all guaranteed by it.

If ever a statement qualified as a half-truth, the reason given by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ralph Maraj to the Secretary General of the OAS for pulling Trinidad out of the American Convention on Human Rights is such a statement. Maraj says that the Pratt and Morgan decision means that inordinate delay in carrying out the death penalty “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is accordingly a contravention of section 5(2)(b) of the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago”. He goes on to say that “in order to subject no one to inhuman or degrading punishment” he and the Attorney General attempted to have the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights speed up its procedures. Since this attempt had failed Trinidad and Tobago was withdrawing from the Convention.

In other words, to safeguard human rights, we are withdrawing from a Convention on Human Rights.

The law of Trinidad and Tobago does not say that people convicted of murder must be hanged. What it says is that they must be condemned to death. All the procedures that have prevented them from being hanged, including the Pratt and Morgan decision, are part of the law of Trinidad and Tobago. Furthermore, Pratt and Morgan does not say you must hang within five years. It says you must not hang after five years. Nor does it say that murderers who are not hanged are not punished. The way the Privy Council wanted us to avoid subjecting people to inhuman and degrading punishment was by not hanging them.

The Government, for the sole purpose of ensuring the application of one of several possible outcomes of the law, has branded us internationally as a country that does not honour its obligations. When the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Patrick Manning, pointed this out, he was right. In everything else he said in response to the event, he was wrong, and as hypocritical in his statements as the Minister was in his letter.

The denunciation of the Convention was not “secretive” as Mr. Manning stated. The Attorney General announced the intention five months ago. Parliament was not informed, said Mr. Manning. But no one in the Opposition insisted at any stage that it should be, despite articles in this newspaper urging them to do so.

The Opposition therefore has no moral authority in the matter. The Member for Diego Martin West, Dr. Keith Rowley, objected to the Government’s attempts to limit the jurisdiction of the Privy Council simply for the political gains to be made from hanging convicted felons, and warned that it could “result in the name of Trinidad and Tobago being unnecessarily sullied in international circles”. Neither he nor anyone else in the Opposition pointed out that the argument applied even more strongly to the Convention on Human Rights. Mr. Manning’s position is even more suspect in that the PNM while in office proposed that the Pratt and Morgan guidelines should be respected but that the time taken for appeals to the Human Rights bodies should not count towards the five-year deadline. In other words, the PNM wanted to neutralise the Convention without withdrawing from it.

The government could have learned from the experience of Jamaica, whose withdrawal from the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political rights for exactly the same reasons resulted in the European Human Rights Commission passing a resolution condemning Jamaica. This is bound to have repercussions on Jamaica’s relations with Europe. As it is, the Inter-American Commission at its last meeting expressed in no uncertain terms its outrage that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago should try to tell it how to do its work. This, of course, Mr. Maraj has not told anyone (perhaps he doesn’t know).

The Convention protected citizens of this country against a number of abuses of human rights that have nothing to do with cruel and unusual punishment. Privacy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, are all guaranteed by it. Signature of the Convention binds States to respect these rights, and the Commission provides a tribunal to which citizens can apply for redress when the rights are violated, as they all too often are, by governments. Our own government has recently threatened to abridge at least three of those freedoms—press freedom by means of the Media Law outlined in the Green Paper, freedom of speech by an “equal opportunity” bill, and the right of assembly by means of an amendment to the Summary Offences (Amendment) Act of 1970. The Prime Minister has also refused to sign the Declaration of Chapultepec because it doesn’t forbid “lies, half truths and innuendoes”. So we need all the protection we can get.

An even broader issue than the question of the protection of rights is the question of the role of Parliament in the country’s adhesion to or denunciation of treaties and conventions. It is a principle of parliamentary democracy that such pacts should be subject to discussion or, depending on their importance, even approval by the legislature. This has never been the case in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Manning’s complaint that Parliament was not informed is all the more hypocritical in that over the years the PNM governments have been far more guilty of contempt of Parliament than the UNC. In fact, it was the PNM government that signed the UN Covenant, also without consulting Parliament. If Mr. Manning is sincere, he should now insist on an amendment to the Constitution to give Parliament a mandatory role in the nation’s assumption and rejection of international obligations.

The final irony in all this is that it will bring Mr. Maharaj only very partial success, if any at all. His purpose in denouncing the Convention was not to hang murderers, but to hang certain specific murderers. In other words, those who don’t have lawyers working on their behalf. For Mr. Maharaj knows that it is not the Human Rights bodies or even the Privy Council that is preventing him hanging murderers. It is the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, with its provision for constitutional motions and stays of execution while they are being heard. The possible grounds for constitutional motions alleging violation of rights are limitless, and as long as they can continue to be made, rejected, appealed up the line and replaced with others, the petitioners are safe from the gallows. That is why Mr. Maharaj’s initial weapon of choice was a constitutional amendment to limit the definition of cruel and unusual punishment and abolish the right to a stay of execution during appeal. He failed in this because Parliament would never pass it. So now he is creating two classes of murderer: those who don’t have lawyers to keep the petitions coming, and those who do. The first group he is getting ready to hang. The second will presumably join the others who have been saved by Pratt and Morgan.

If that is not discrimination, and therefore a violation of human rights, what is? Any gradation of penalties should be based on severity of the offence, and determined by Parliament and the courts, not on administrative procedure or access to counsel. If the lawyers are on their toes, this discrimination will form the grounds for the next round of constitutional motions, and perhaps Mr. Maharaj will not be able to hang anyone at all. And Trinidad and Tobago will have suffered international condemnation for nothing.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon Page Top