It has been two weeks since the People’s Partnership Government declared a state of emergency and citizens still remain in the dark as to the reasons for having our constitution suspended and thus being deprived of our fundamental democratic and constitutional rights. As per section 1 (9) of our constitution “within three days of making the proclamation, the President shall deliver to the Speaker for presentation to the House of Representatives a statement setting out the specific grounds on which the decision to declare the existence of a state of public emergency was based”.
Mr. Sandy in his contribution to the debate on the motion to extend the state of emergency for three months repeated the Attorney General’s claim that a major crisis was averted and that there was an immediate threat and endangerment to public safety. To date however, both Mr. Ramlogan and Mr. Sandy have refused to give this nation the “specific grounds” on which this state of emergency was called. In a most ingenious way, the Minister of National Security resorted to the cover of “matters of national security” as his reasons for not telling the citizens of this country why exactly a state of emergency was called.
The refusal of the Attorney General and Minister of National Security to inform this country as to the “specific grounds” for having declared a state of emergency does not seem to be in accordance with our constitution. The constitution is quite clear the President must tell our Parliament the “SPECIFIC GROUNDS” on which the state of emergency was called. Nowhere in the constitution does it state that if the state of emergency pertains to a matter of national security that the government can withhold information from citizens. As a matter of fact that entire notion proffered by the Attorney General and Minister of National Security is vulgarly nonsensical as the very purpose of having the provision for a state of emergency in our constitution is to deal with matters of national security in whatever form they may arise, be it natural disaster, disease pandemic or an attack on our democratic institutions by way of a coup.
In seeking to allay justifiable concerns as to the governments declaration and handling of the state of emergency, during his debate Mr. Sandy recapped all the previous state of emergencies our country has been under. What Mr. Sandy did not say in our Parliament as he ought to have, is of all our previous states of emergencies the citizens of this country knew exactly why we had a state of emergency. This is the first time in the history of our country that a state of emergency has been called and citizens have not been appraised as to the ‘specific grounds’ for declaring such. Therefore, what this People’s Partnership Government has done is set a dangerous precedent where any government in the future can call a state of emergency to further their agenda, be it genuine, political or even oppressive and all that government would have to do to circumvent the constitutional and democratic rights of citizens of this country is use the cloak of “matters of national security” and thus avoid accountability to the electorate.
Whether one is in support of the ‘reasoning’ behind this government’s state of emergency or against it, one must take note of this dangerous precedent that has been set by the People’s Partnership Government and its implications for our democratic survival. It seems foolhardy that in order to get a temporary relief from crime because of the abject failure of our security services that we should allow such a colossal undermining of our constitutional mechanisms. Quite frankly I’m not sure which frightens me the most, the government’s reckless manipulation of our constitutional apparatus or citizen’s ignorance to the implications of government’s actions.
Trinbagonians would do well to heed the words of Netsanet Belay, Director of Policy Research at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation regarding our state of emergency, “The State of Emergency, inappropriate legislation and broad implementation of a curfew represent a disproportionate interference with fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly enshrined both in the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and throughout international human rights law. After just two weeks, Trinbagonian citizens risk signing away civic freedoms that have taken forty-nine years of hard struggle and nation-building to win. Persistent crime and personal insecurity are very real threats to many Caribbean nations and need to be taken seriously. Nevertheless the trend we are witnessing across the Caribbean region of using disproportionate security-based measures will only weaken trust in state institutions and could lead to a virtual close down of space for citizens and civil society participation.”