Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Balancing rights and order

Express editorial logo478

Mark Fraser

For both those whose pulpits are inside or outside, the temporary relocation of Parliament to the International Waterfront Centre in Port of Spain was bound to be problematic. Inside its precincts are those who represent the people as their MPs; outside are those who represent the people, usually in protest outside the precincts of Parliament.

At the Red House, the public enjoyed the entire circumference of the venue to bring the pressure of public opinion to their elected and nominated representatives inside.

On Tuesday, one of the most heated days since Parliament took up residence at the Waterfront, the claims of both sides came into such sharp contestation that it sparked confrontation between officers of the Riot Squad and protesters.

It occurred when the police followed a directive from some unidentified person to remove the protesters and send them to an area closer to the Breakfast Shed entrance. The Express was later told the police action was taken under the House of Representatives (Powers and Privileges) Act. Presumably, the action was taken under Section 9 of the act which sets the standard for public conduct within the “precincts of the House”.

For the record, the act defines the precincts of the House as “the room in which the House sits in session for the transaction of business, and includes the galleries adjacent thereto”. By law, therefore, the courtyard and pavement around the Waterfront Complex are not covered by Section 9. If there is some other legal basis on which the police moved against protesters who had been peacefully making their point for two weeks, the police should say what it is.

In matters involving fundamental constitutional rights, it is vitally important that the police act with the protection of legal authority. There should be no room for ambiguity or arbitrary action.

Clarity is more than ever needed given the challenges posed by the Parliament’s temporary location along Wrightson Road, a major traffic artery. Protest demonstrations are increasingly likely to present management challenges to security forces who need to preserve the dignity and ensure the workability of the legislature and preserve traffic movement, while recognising the individual’s right to freedom of expression.

With all the signs pointing to a contentious election campaign within the next year, we encourage the acting Commissioner of Police and his executive team to conduct a full review and post-mortem exercise of Tuesday’s events to see what lessons can be fed forward into similar situations in the future.

Common sense would suggest more testing situations as the country gets closer to the next election. In such circumstances, smart policing with a cool head and a sure grasp of the law will go a long way in keeping the lid on excess on all sides.

Parliament’s current location is far from ideal for meetings of the people’s representatives with its severely limited seating capacity and cramped location. In this context, it would be wise to err on the side of making space for the people outside.