Mr Warner’s trial run
“If allyuh believe what you saw in Debe, allyuh haven't seen anything yet; mark my words."
Minister of National Security,
There can be no question that the howls of outrage and anger with which many have reacted to Mr Warner’s early morning escapade in Debe are entirely justified. For if we truly understood what Mr Warner’s actions signified, we would know that they are deserving of the unqualified condemnation of the entire population.
But even as we call for Jack’s head we need to be very clear as to why we have to do so lest, by confusing the issues, we not only give him the opportunity to wriggle out of the noose but diminish the gravity of his actions as well.
Condemnation of Mr Warner has nothing to do with the fact that he saw fit to demolish the camp of the Highway Re-Route Movement. Whether we support the Re-Route Movement or not, we should admit that the protesters must have been well aware, when they set up their campsite directly in the proposed highway route, and on State lands to boot, that they were doing something that was illegal and that, should they be unable to sway the Government to their position, the time would come when they would have to be forcibly removed.
It may even be that it was an outcome for which they themselves were hoping so as to give renewed momentum and fuel to an issue which thus far, and in spite of extraordinary media attention, had signally failed to ignite the sustained interest of the population. Nor should we be too perturbed that, in the demolition of the campsite, a space of religious worship was destroyed. Religious places and spaces, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim, are not sanctuaries for acts of illegality.
While, for aspiring politicians, these issues may seem like rich fodder for agitation and legal action, they do not even come close to approximating the true horror that Mr Warner has unleashed upon us and we must resist the temptation to elevate the cause of the protesters above what is really the more alarming issue in this matter.
What Mr Warner did in simple terms, and by his own admission, was to, without even the cover of a State of Emergency, take it upon himself to call out armed soldiers to mount a military sortie against civilians engaged in an entirely civil and non-violent protest.
In the first place the Defence Force, and in particular the Regiment, is a military force charged with the defence of Trinidad and Tobago and with such other duties as may from time to time be defined by the Defence Council. These duties do not and cannot include military action against citizens except in cases of armed insurrection against the state or in the context of the declaration of a State of Emergency.
Second, no minister of government, acting on his own, has the authority to order or even request the Defence Force to engage in any action or to assign to them duties not authorised by the Defence Council. The Minister of National Security is the head of the Defence Council but he cannot act unilaterally in assigning duties to the Defence Force without the sanction of the Council.
So, in doing what he did last week, not only did Mr Warner breach the law of the land, and not only did he usurp the authority of the Defence Council (and, by extension, the powers of the President, who is constitutionally the Commander in Chief of the Defence Force), both of which constitute acts of serious misfeasance, but, even more alarming, is the fact that by his actions, he set a dangerous precedent the full ramifications of which are frightening to contemplate.
Let us be serious here. If a minister of government can pick up the phone and call the head of the Regiment and instruct him (or advise him or request him) to send armed soldiers against civilians, for whatever reason, and that officer complies with that request without the sanction of the Defence Council, then we have reached the stage where we are no longer a nation operating under the rule of law but we are now a country subject only to the rule of force.
And when that force is superior to all other armed forces in the land and is commanded by an individual who acts on his own volition without the approval or even the knowledge of the Prime Minister, without the approval or knowledge of the Parliament, then what has occurred is a coup. The fact that this coup was used in this instance, only to rout the Re-Route protesters, should not blind us to its essential nature.
In the face of the enormity of this reality I join with the Leader of the Opposition or Dr Keith Rowley, in demanding that the Prime Minister publicly confirm her Government's commitment to the observation of and respect for the independence of the police and the Defence Force and for the rule of law in general.
But I go further. For any avowed commitment by the Prime Minister to the rule of law must be demonstrated by swift and positive action. Her first step must be to remove Mr Warner not only from his ministerial position, but entirely from the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister must then request the President to convene an independent commission of enquiry to investigate this affair and to give recommendations as to whether and what charges must be brought against Mr Warner and against Brigadier General Kenrick Maharaj.
If the Prime Minister should consider refusing such a request, for reasons of her political survival, she should, for a moment, ponder this. Mr Warner, without her knowledge or authorisation, sought and obtained armed soldiers to carry out acts against persons in the civilian population. For him this may simply have been a trial run.
If he is allowed to get away with this then his words used in the quotation at the start of this column may well become prophetic, and the next time it happens, she may just find him knocking on her door at the break of dawn one fateful morning. And if she thinks that cannot happen here let her remember that that is exactly what people said before 1990.
—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on
politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.