July 02, 2009

Let the people decide on CCJ

Published: 2 Jul 2009

Perhaps the moment has arrived for the population, through a referendum, to have a say on whether or not the Caribbean Court of Justice should replace the British Privy Council as the final appellate court of T&T.

Only last week we had noted Caribbean integrationist, Sir Shridath Ramphal, unleashing a broadside against Caribbean politicians and the colonial mentality that still prevails among many, inside and outside of politics. It is this mentality of dependence, according to the distinguished Caribbean national, which prevents the region from taking the step of independence towards a court of the Caribbean making all final decisions on matters of legal justice.

Sir Shridath called it an act of “abysmal contrariety” that here is a region which has had a tradition of 100 years of “erudition and excellence in the legal profession” still hanging on to the coattails of the British court. We could add that this is true even when the court and society signalled some time ago that the time was right for the former colonial territories to establish their own independent jurisdictions.

Well, and as Sir Shridath noted, the former colonial territories of the Caribbean remain by far the largest bloc of countries (14 out of 20) still belonging to the Privy Council. While other Commonwealth countries seem to have taken the hint, we still seem addicted to the British court. Ironically, T&T, which hosts the CCJ and has the first president, a former Chief Justice and an attorney with a distinguished practice at the bar, is not able to join the CCJ in its appellate jurisdiction.

And this brings us to the major point of this editorial: perhaps we have to go the full distance to nationhood by holding a referendum to allow the population to say “yea” or “nay” as to whether we are confident enough as a people to remove one of the last vestiges of colonialism and to go on to meaningful independence.

Sure enough, Basdeo Panday, who when he was Prime Minister pushed for the establishment of the CCJ, played the contrary political game to withhold his party’s support of the CCJ now that he is no longer in office. But maybe the society can use Mr Panday’s contrariness to its benefit by holding a referendum to allow the population to decide for itself whether it should go forward.

Not only will the country, well informed, vote very deliberately and like adults about accepting the responsibility for making decisions about itself, but it will set in train a tradition which will then have to be followed by politicians and lawmakers.

That tradition will be that on fundamental issues regarding its governance, Parliament, the Government and Opposition, the Cabinet and all the leaders with state offices will have to acknowledge the right of people to decide for themselves, and not by proxy, where the country and society should go into the future.

There could not be a better moment for that kind of arousal and infusion of the participatory ethic than the present. Here now there is talk of constitutional reform and the creation of an executive president with all-pervasive powers, and all of this done through a simple majority vote in a Parliament which is not representative of at least 25 per cent of the population that consistently is not impressed with any of the political parties in the political environment.

A referendum on the Caribbean Court of Justice could set in motion that ethic of a truly participatory democracy in which people have a meaningful say in the direction in which the country develops. And maybe, just maybe, that political culture will influence the rest of the region in a similar direction.

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