Commentary: Identity and dignity lost with the CCJ

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own. Responses to: www.sirronaldsanders.com

By Sir Ronald Sanders

The referenda, held individually in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, on replacing the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on November 6, were lost for the same reason that Brexit succeeded in the United Kingdom.

The governing political parties in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, like the conservative party of then British Prime Minister David Cameron, took a hands-off approach to the referenda.

In Antigua and Barbuda, apart from the prime minister, Gaston Browne, the leadership of the governing party played little or no role in educating its electorate about the issue on which they were required to vote. The result was not only a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of popular interest.

Not surprisingly, therefore, only at the voting centres in Gaston Browne’s constituency, was the count in favour of the CCJ as high as 63 percent.

This absence of direct involvement by the political leadership of the governing parties created a vacuum readily filled by those who opposed a constitutional change that would make the CCJ the final court of appeal for civil and criminal matters. The opponents played upon the lack of knowledge by creating fears.

As in Britain, where just over 50 percent of those who opted to leave the European Union voted on irrelevant, extraneous issues and lies, the same occurred in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada.

The arguments offered were many. They were deceitful in some cases, and misleading and willfully inaccurate in others. The saying comes to mind that “a lie is not another side of the story; it is just a lie”.

The worst of the statements was an attack on the integrity of the Court, for which there is no basis. Others included claims that the politicians appoint the judges (the judges are appointed by an independent Regional Legal Services Commission); the judges are beholden to the politicians who pay them (the cost of the Court is met from the proceeds of a Trust Fund established in 2005 and independently managed); the judges are cronies of the politicians in government (the CCJ decisions have been more against governments than for them); replenishing the Trust Fund after 13 years will cripple government’s finances (Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada would pay only 2.11 percent each).

The ruling political parties in both Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada appeared to have fallen prey to the notion that the referendum should be a matter of free choice, left to “the individual conscience” of the voter. They seemed to have forgotten that the worst condition for making a choice or a decision is one in which the facts are not well known and understood.

It was the responsibility of the political leaders of all parties (opposition and government) to educate the electorate of their nations. They didn’t. While the governments didn’t engage in the kind of necessary political campaigning and groundwork, including house-to-house visits offering explanations and answering questions, opposition elements were creating fears and spreading them. The objective was to give the governing party a bloody nose; a reality about which the hierarchy of the governing parties appeared oblivious.

Little wonder then that the voter turnout in both countries was shamefully small, and that the larger number of votes cast was by those who had been made to fear the CCJ.

The political leaders seem to have forgotten that the referendum, which was the beginning of all referenda in the Caribbean, failed in 1962 precisely because of the power of fear and lies, and the wrongful belief that campaigning for a cause was not necessary because its rightness was strong enough.

That referendum, of course, was the Jamaica referendum on the West Indian Federation. Alexander Bustamante campaigned vigorously and won on the created fears that Jamaica would be overrun by the “small islanders” (as it turns out, it is the small islands that have witnessed an influx of Jamaicans), and Jamaican taxpayers would have to pay to keep the other islands alive (history has proved differently). Norman Manley did not campaign effectively and lost because of his belief in the rightness of the Federation and saw little need to counter the fears generated by Bustamante.

In each succeeding referendum, wherever held in the Caribbean, the pattern has been the same. Governing parties have neglected the importance of direct political engagement to educate and inform their electorates and to dispel fears manufactured by opposing political parties and other groups with a vested interest.

Just as the 1962 Jamaica referendum determined the Caribbean experience, crumbling the region into small states – each unable to command economic and political attention in a world dominated by the large and powerful – so too have the referenda in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada injured the region.

What has been injured most is pride and respect for national and Caribbean identity, dignity and self-respect. In Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, the electorate was misled into believing that, by rejecting their own Caribbean court in favour of a court in Britain, they somehow enhanced their own standing.

The worst contributors to this damage to the dignity and identity – the very being of the Caribbean persona – are the political leaders of the opposition parties who either actively told their supporters to vote against the CCJ or pretended to be sitting on the sidelines. They know better. But, for them, the quest for political advantage trumped principle of national honour.

Now it looks like the eight sovereign states of the Caribbean – and their “independent” peoples – will have to wait for the British Privy Council to tell them to go (something that has already been forewarned by Privy Councillors). And what an ignominious way that will be to scurry to the CCJ.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Too bad Sir Roland fails to remind us that the all powerful President (i.e., Chief Justice) of the court is appointed and removed by the leaders of the relevant CARICOM countries, that the court would soon run out of money if all CARICOM members joined making them immefidiately dependent on and subservient to the political elite for their salaries and court administration, that the CCJ is simply part of a larger Caribbean legal system that nobody trusts or respects, and that the low turnout was a function of a combination of voter apathy and a desire to maintain legal status quo.

    As for being pushed out of the Juridical Committee of the Privy Council, there are choices other than the CCJ, notably the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, both respected United Nations courts headquartered in The Hague.

  2. I never read much of what Ronny Jaundice writes because he was an avid supporter of Hugo Chavez and is a supporter of Nicolas Maduro.

    That in my mind discounts him from being believable.

  3. Hear! Hear! Sir Ronald has unveiled the “rejection of the CCJ” referendum in a single blow with an outstanding summary. Well said Sir Ronald!

    You’re absolutely right sir, “this absence of direct involvement by the political leadership of the governing parties created a vacuum readily filled by those who opposed a constitutional change that would make the CCJ the final court of appeal for civil and criminal matters. The opponents played upon the lack of knowledge by creating fears…” in the minds of the ignorant few and this contributed heavily to or was the real cause of the failure of the CCJ not being selected as the Caribbean’s highest appeal court. I agree with that sum sir.

    Grenada’s referendum? Same thing! Flashback! …2009 SVG (St Vincent and the Grenadines) constitutional referendum? Same thing!

    Says Sir Ronald: “In each succeeding referendum, wherever held in the Caribbean, the pattern has been the same. Governing parties have neglected the importance of direct political engagement to educate and inform their electorates and to dispel fears manufactured by opposing political parties and other groups with a vested interest”.

    Agreeing with Sir Ronald, not enough and very little was done to educate the people as to why these changes were necessary, is needed, was important and happened to be in the countries best interest irrespective of party affiliation, all the while proactively responding, buffering and stopping dead in their tracks the opposition’s scandalous attacks, their “irrelevant, extraneous issues and lies…” against individuals and their respective governments. “…The arguments offered were many. They were deceitful in some cases, and misleading and willfully inaccurate in others”. Absolutely correct, and to the point Sir Ronald!

    Grenada’s PM Mitchell even admitted that ‘he regretted the defeat for the CCJ, noting that he should have done more to encourage voters to accept the CCJ as the island deepens its political independence from Britain.’ He says, “The one bill that I feel strongly about that maybe I should have gone out more publicly on [and] take a position I feel as a Grenadian, a Caribbean man; we are hurting ourselves as a people.

    Accordingly as was the case with the call for a transition to the CCJ as our highest appellate court, it didn’t fail because it wasn’t a good call; it only failed because the reactionaries, on the opposition side and their parties wanted it to fail, and would prefers that their party gets the credit for bringing about the change if needs be.

    Says Sir Ronald “…opposition elements were creating fears and spreading them. The objective was to give the governing party a bloody nose; a reality about which the hierarchy of the governing parties appeared oblivious”.

    PM Gaston Browne of Antigua… alluded to this insidious behavior in one of his remarks when he says “You know on the one hand they saying they are not against the transition to the CCJ, that is to have the CCJ as our Apex Court, but on the other hand they are trying to argue and without any convincing argument or arguments that we need to wait”. Wait? Wait what. You mean until they get into office, that’s it!

    As a consequence, we heard of one opposition minister in SVG admitting recently in reference to the 2009 referendum, that ‘he knew deep down the “change” was a good one for the country, but because he is a party man, and because of his duty and commitment to his party he voted against it’.

    Sadly to say, this myopic attitude and behavior displayed by the respective governments certainly contributed in a big way to the failure of the CCJ not being accepted overwhelmingly… and their role as champions of the cause. The end result was that the people were not sufficiently convinced whatsoever about the need for a CCJ, through lack of knowledge about the “why’s and wherefores” of the institution as a whole, and not about ready at present to throw off Her Majesty’s Most Honorable Privy Council as the highest court of appeal.

    As Iman Rasta would say, “More time still”!

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