Letters & Opinion

Human Rights and States of National Emergency

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Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

I tend to preserve my sanity by insulating myself from the sickness of nothingness that comes with mindless criticism for criticism sake, automatic opposition for opposing sake and automatic justification of all one’s party does in government, whether good, bad or just plain ugly.

I therefore avoid counting how many people die or get killed every year or discussing whether Saint Lucia will be better off with a Black Prime Minister.

This new sickness has been around much longer than this latest Corona virus and is not isolated to Saint Lucia.

Just like the Republicans in the US take pride and joy in repeating and permanently applying President Trump’s tit-for-tat mantras of ‘They did it first!’ or ‘Obama didn’t do it, so why call on me?’, Saint Lucians are applying the same yardstick to measure almost every issue that calls the government or opposition into question.

Same with the National Emergency declared here this week.

The Governor General issued a seven-day Proclamation on Monday that was extended to 30 days by Parliament on Tuesday, with room for further extension to 90 days.

A curfew never felt here before and Saint Lucians never having been ordered to stay home and off the streets at any time ever, I held from Day One that in the absence of a necessary level of preparation, people will take time to adjust and panic will result in overreaction and violation of some of the restrictions of the curfew and the conventions necessary to effectively fight Covid-19 through Social Distancing and Self Isolation.

A friend quite knowledgeable in legal, judicial and constitutional matters whom I highly respect suggested to me in a friendly text message earlier this week that I should write something about how the emergency is violating people’s rights.

Without going into detail, I explained in reply that is why an ‘emergency’ is called by that name, because it strips powers and rights legally and constitutionally and puts them in one central hand or body.

I pointed out that the Chinese couldn’t have had their population under control today without the ‘One Child’ law and policy in (circa) 1980 that violated people’s right to have as many children as they may have wanted.

I also recalled that the Cubans could not have nipped AIDS in the bud back in the early 1980s if they hadn’t rounded-up and put all victims in involuntary isolation for treatment; and that whenever a dangerous hurricane is approaching and an evacuation order is given, the Cuban army and militia are dispatched to the threatened area and take everyone – man, woman and child — out of harm’s way.

And then I noted that the Chinese could not have brought Coronavirus under control without taking away some rights through the national emergency they declared that affected hundreds of millions.

I noted that in each of the instances mentioned, suspension of some individual rights resulted in the greater good for all — and in each case, the world has come around from criticism to belated acceptance and reluctant admission that the emergencies were absolutely necessary.

The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) condemned the Chinese One Child Policy back in 1980, but praised it two decades later vis-à-vis what’s become of India’s unbridled population growth in the same period.

The USA and other Western countries accused Cuba of trampling on the rights of AIDS victims when they were rounded-up for treatment, but the World Health Organization (WHO) also belatedly praised the Cubans two decades later.

And the world is learning quickly from China on the coronavirus front today, with similar but different national states of emergency being applied almost everywhere, through everything from closure of air and seaports and sealing of land borders to outright bans on leaving home — with arrests and fines to boot.

I ended my first text message repeating a position I’ve always held — that no one has a right to endanger his or her life; and it is the State’s absolute duty to protect every citizen’s Right To Life.

My legal and lawful friend replied that he was not looking at ‘socialist countries’ but specifically at Saint Lucia.

The journalist in me took over (as ever) and I replied that St Lucia does not exist in a vacuum and accused him of brushing the facts aside because they don’t suit his narrative.

I held that we shouldn’t localize the issue like if Saint Lucia existed in a cocoon of its own and that’s why I provided facts to back my argument that, by its very nature, any state of national emergency will erode some individual rights, the extent depending on who is in charge.

I had made no reference to ideology but since my friend introduced it, I said I also think that countries with centralized planning and without guaranteed, inbuilt constitutional and parliamentary roadblocks are always better placed to make and take quick decisions in people’s wider interests while also protecting their individual rights.

I also held that most lawyers taking a case against a national emergency in pursuit of less than saving a life or seeking compensation for a life lost is more likely in it for the money and the glory.

And I still hold that individual human rights always take a back seat or are put on the back burner in national emergencies genuinely taken for the wider good.

I advised my learned friend to avoid falling into the trap of engaging in appropriate isolation of facts in pursuit or justification of an inappropriate argument.

I bowed to his greater exposure to the legal norms that apply outside of emergencies, but in this case, with all respect due, I begged to strongly differ.

I closed my second text – and my entire argument – with a note that national emergencies of the kind we’re discussing are always cloaked with bicameral parliamentary support.

Then, I rest my case.

I did not invite or seek a rejoinder but knowing that men and women who wear wigs and silk do not take kindly to out-of-court arguments that challenge their straight and narrow application of laws in accordance with the case in question, I did expect one.

But, having offered my layman’s points of view and rest my case, I have indeed put the matter to rest and will continue to respect my learned friend’s legal takes on the issue at hand, while I concentrate on studying how a people living in limbo can walk a trapeze without a pole and adjust to being jailed at home to help fight an invisible enemy that’s everywhere.

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