How does one express collective shame and embarrassment? How do we reconcile the mouthings of a supposedly “proud” people with their actions in begging to be ruled by others, to be judged by the yardsticks of those who had enslaved them? In kaiso terms, “Ah wanna bawl”, but, as Poorsah would retort, “All me eye water done”.
The tears were shed in the aftermath of the Constitutional referendum held in this country on November 25, 2009. Among the constitutional proposals put forward to the electorate then was one (Section 263) which opened the way for final appeals from our courts to go to the Judicial Committee (of the British Privy Council), or to any other court having final appellate jurisdiction in respect of appeals from St Vincent and the Grenadines in substitution for the jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee…”.
In other words, the proposed Constitution provided a path to our country respecting the expressed wishes of the British judiciary, for us to institute our own final appellate jurisdiction. But in an historic mandate, the electorate of our country not only decisively rejected any Head of State of our own choosing, thereby making Elizabeth of the House of Windsor, our elected “Queen” and Head of State, but also defied the wishes of the British judiciary by insisting that their judges be the final arbiters of our legal appeals. We willingly subverted our own act to become a sovereign nation!
Since then, constitutional reform and the issue of the retention of the British Privy Council, have been prominent in the political dialogue in the region. Many a government has pledged to move away from the monarchical system towards a republican one, but very few have done so, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and tiny, yet courageous Dominica. We have established our own Caribbean Court of Justice, ensured its independence from political control and provided independent funding, yet only four of the CARICOM fold, have dared to cut the colonial navel strings binding us to the Privy Council. That is in spite of repeated exhortations of the Judicial Committee to be rid of us. The “tenants” refuse to leave the ‘Tenement yard”.
In the meantime our own CCJ has matured beyond expectations, to the extent that those who denigrated it can no longer deny its validity. Yet, in order to hang on to the colonial apron strings, some excuses must be hatched. So, we are told that “in principle”, it is right to accept the CCJ, but the problem is that “the time is not right” and that “we are not ready”.
Those were the same arguments employed nearly 60 years ago when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, first sought independence. The arguments were employed here when, in 1978, we decided to move towards independence. Only those steeped in colonial backwardness would dare to say that independence has not worked for all of the former “British colonies” in the Caribbean, so how come we were “not ready”?
It is a SHAME and DISGRACE that in the 21st century, a free people, given a choice, should continue to choose for others to make their final judicial decisions for them, in spite of having some of the most respected jurists in the world. It is embarrassing to hear persons, who KNOW BETTER, leading the chorus to reject our own Court and our own Head of State, using every imaginable fig leaf.
Whether in Antigua or Grenada, where the CCJ was rejected by the voters on Tuesday, or here in SVG, where the path to the CCJ was blocked nine years ago, the arguments against are ridiculous. Some have even resorted to try and cast doubts on the impeccable character of CCJ President Saunders, implying, falsely, political associations.
Yet as ridiculous as they are, our governments continue to make the mistake of dismissing the “concerns” raised. However far-fetched, it is easy for persons who already have doubts about the fairness of our justice system, whether justified or not, to be misled into thinking that a vote for the CCJ would leave us exposed to greater injustice.
Those are the same fears which led Vincentians to believe that a new Constitution which did not have the protection of “the Queen” would open the way to dictatorship. Far-fetched they might be, but the concerns are real and must be taken into account. Every one of the governments which have gone the referendum route has short-circuited the inclusive process, have opened the way to confusion about partisanship, which has been gleefully exploited by opponents.
What is playing out is a political battle in which the will of the people is manipulated for partisan concerns. We shall regret the consequences.
More on this next week.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.