Sunday 16 February, 2020

CLOSE COUNT! State of emergency gets extension vote from the House

Peter Bunting... said he would not support the measure, as the Government has not demonstrated that the country is facing an emergency,

Peter Bunting... said he would not support the measure, as the Government has not demonstrated that the country is facing an emergency,

The state of emergency (SOE) that was imposed in the three western Jamaica parishes of Westmoreland, St James and Hanover on April 30, has been extended for three months until July 29.

The extension came after a more than two-hour-long debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, on a motion brought by Prime Minister Andrew Holness. In the end, 44 Members of Parliament voted for the continuation of the emergency measure, one voted against, and 18 were absent. So close was the vote in the 63-member House that one member was heard asking, "Wi get the votes", after the clerk of the House had taken the count.

A two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament is needed for the SOE to remain in force.

In seeking to justify the latest SOE, Holness told the House that the country faced the triple threat of “guns, dons and gangs”. He said there are 56 active gangs in the areas now under curfew, with 17 of them involved in ongoing feuds over turf.

The prime minister pointed to what he said is the widespread nature of access to weapons among the gangs, and said even some members of the security forces are reportedly in fear of some of the known violence producers.

“The extraordinary level of violent crime in Jamaica has been a feature of our democracy for far too long,” declared Holness.

Soldiers deployed in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland under the ongoing state of emergency in western Jamaica.

“While it has impaired our development for decades, the greatest cost to our nation has been the many lives that

have been lost,” he added, as he sought to justify the SOE four months after three previous SOEs ended when the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) withdrew its support last December.

On Tuesday, Opposition MPs warned repeatedly that they will not support the emergency measure indefinitely. Central Manchester representative, Peter Bunting, a former National Security Minister, said he would not support the measure, as the Government has not demonstrated that the country is facing an emergency.

Bunting caused the prime minister to rise on a point of order when he appeared to suggest that MPs had delegated their constitutional roles to the heads of the security forces.

Holness told the House that, among other things, the SOE was imposed based on the recommendation of Police Commissioner, Major General Antony Anderson, and Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant General Rocky Meade.

For his part, Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips, warned the Government against normalising the SOE, and again called for a national consensus on crime.

Phillips acknowledged that there has been a resurgence of violence, particularly in St James and western Jamaica generally, which is now threatening the safety of citizens and the stability of the social environment. But he questioned “why has St James been so affected” four months after a year-long SOE ended in the parish.

Phillips argued that it is not so much that another SOE is needed, but rather, he said, it is “an indication that we effectively failed in the period when there was a state of emergency, to put the necessary arrangements in place…”

The Opposition leader warned that “an emergency by definition cannot exist in perpetuity. It can’t exist for any extended length of time, otherwise it becomes normal.

“If you use an emergency power as a normal power, then you are trespassing on people’s rights,” he stated.

In the meantime, Bunting stated that “the Government has successfully conflated in the public’s mind, the idea that the only respite from violence and from murder and shooting in particular, is to declare a state of emergency.”

He pointedly declared that “This is not true”.

He also accused the Government of using what he called its “formidable PR machinery” to exploit the public that is desperate for relief, but in whose mind he suggested that the Government has successfully planted the idea that only a SOE will save them.

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