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Roundabout Ramesh

Denis Solomon • 1,151 words

Neither the Guardian nor Ramesh has any way of knowing the popular will regarding the hanging of murderers, cold-blooded or hot-blooded. But whatever the opinion of the majority of the population may be, it is not a reason for abandoning leadership in a moral issue.

In his hunger to hang, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj has given up on the prospect of getting a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the Constitution (Amendment) Bill he drafted in 1996, and is putting his faith in a two-pronged approach: a special unit in his Ministry to expedite capital matters, and the withdrawal of Trinidad and Tobago from the United Nations and Inter-American Human Rights Commissions. In this way he hopes to hang condemned murderers within the two-year limit imposed by the Privy Council guidelines.

The Constitution (Amendment) Bill would have excluded delay in carrying out the death sentence from the definition of cruel and unusual punishment against which the Constitution guarantees the citizen. It would also have taken away the right of the court to grant a stay of execution when a constitutional motion alleging cruel and unusual punishment of any kind was made.

The result of such an amendment would have been a series of Glen Ashbys dragged to the scaffold during the hearing of their appeals. It would also have been the first nail in the coffin of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal for Trinidad and Tobago.

The amendment, however, would not have passed, for two main reasons. The first is that many legislators, chiefly but not exclusively lawyers, were very uncomfortable with the idea of guaranteeing human rights in a Constitution but removing redress against infringement of the guarantee. A poll of independent Senators carried out by this newspaper in June 1996 showed that all of them, including those in favour of retaining the death penalty, were against the removal of the right to a stay of execution.

The second reason is that most legislators, like practically all of their constituents, do not want to see the Privy Council removed as the final court of appeal. They distrust our own courts and see the Privy Council as a final recourse in all kinds of matters unrelated to the death penalty. Among those legislators are Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and all his fellow Ministers. The UNC, in opposition, went on record as being against the abolition of the Privy Council.

A factor that may also have played a part is that abolitionists, perhaps in Parliament but certainly outside, would have wanted to know why Ramesh was asking Parliament to help him hang people without first asking it whether it wanted people to be hanged. The question of the death penalty has never been debated in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. As an argument for his Bill Ramesh claimed that “the people of Trinidad and Tobago have reaffirmed their belief in capital punishment ...to the Prescott Commission of Enquiry into the appropriateness of the death penalty as a punishment in Trinidad and Tobago”. The people of Trinidad and Tobago have done nothing of the kind. A commission of enquiry is not a poll of public opinion. The only thing that would make it so would be to receive the imprimatur of the representatives of the people. The Prescott Report should have been brought to Parliament. The reason it was not brought was not, as Ramesh implied, that Parliament was superfluous. It was that the report was a lousy piece of work. Dr. Roger Hood, Fellow of All Souls college, Oxford and Director of the Centre for Criminological Research, said of it: “I have never seen such a poor piece of work from an official body charged with a subject of such importance”.

So Ramesh is now trying to achieve by roundabout external action a curtailment of human rights that he has been unable to obtain from his own Parliament. But a country’s accession to a treaty must be ratified by its legislature. So, therefore, should the renunciation of a treaty. And since, like the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, such renunciation involves a curtailment of human rights, its ratification should be subject to the same special majority as the Bill would have been. Withdrawal from the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights would touch a wide range of matters other than capital ones.

In support of Ramesh’s initiative, the Trinidad Guardian, in a typically hysterical editorial, has referred to the “ridiculous” guidelines set out in the “notorious” Pratt and Morgan decision of the “abolitionist” Privy Council. The editorial also states that killers are using the UN and Inter-American bodies as “new avenues” to delay their execution. The Guardian, like Ramesh, refers to “the popular will which has clearly been expressed (it presumably means “has been clearly expressed”) in favour of executing cold-blooded killers”.

First of all, the two bodies in question are not new avenues, but have been used all along. The Attorney General in the last PNM administration, Keith Sobion, recognised this when he said that appeal to the international bodies should not count as delay in applying the Pratt and Morgan guidelines. But he did not attempt to achieve this by withdrawing from the Human Rights Bodies. For the PNM, even hanging Glen Ashby illegally was preferable to that.

Neither the Guardian nor Ramesh has any way of knowing the popular will regarding the hanging of murderers, cold-blooded or hot-blooded. But whatever the opinion of the majority of the population may be, it is not a reason for abandoning leadership in a moral issue. A majority of people in Britain are probably in favour of the return of the death penalty, and Margaret Thatcher when Prime Minister certainly was. Yet in a conscience vote in the British Parliament three years ago the proposal was heavily defeated. In moral issues Parliament, and even government, should lead and not follow. The injunction against following a multitude to do evil has a particular relevance for national leaders.

The Guardian also says that the arguments made before the international bodies are that the death penalty is a harsh and cruel punishment, points that out own Appeal Court has rejected. This is false. The arguments put to the Commissions are that delay amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, whatever the reason for the delay. That is what Ramesh cannot get our own Parliament to deny, and it therefore remains a valid argument at any level of the appeal process. Neither the Commissions nor the “abolitionist” Privy Council accept that the death penalty is cruel and unusual. The Law Lords have specifically said that laws imposing capital punishment cannot be struck down on the grounds that execution in itself is cruel and unusual.

The United Nations Committee and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights are not clubs you join or resign from as it suits your narrow purposes. They are expressions of civilisation. To withdraw from them for the reasons the Attorney General is advancing would be to announce to the international community that our desire to inflict death is greater than our respect for principles of justice elaborated by civilised nations over the centuries.

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