PERHAPS following this week’s state funeral for former president and prime minister ANR Robinson, and before the dust settles on the imbroglio involving correspondence from former solicitor general Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell on an alleged “unethical business venture” among lawyers, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar should consider revisiting her recent statement on the issue of when—not if—Trinidad and Tobago will access full membership of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
It is one of the sad ironies of governance politics within our Caribbean Community that Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago—the first two member countries to become independent nations in this region—should continue to vacillate and engage in double-speak to justify their failure to fully accept the CCJ as their final appellate institution.
While the opposition Jamaica Labour Party continues its pathetic political dance to justify its failure to walk the talk with the governing People’s National Party to shed the historical colonial relationship with the Privy Council in London, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar was singing a new tune on T&T’s CCJ membership a fortnight ago.
In addressing the official opening of the Law Faculty of the University of the West Indies (St Augustine campus), the Prime Minister—a former attorney general—declared that the country’s access to the CCJ as its final appellate court “is inevitable”.
However, before anybody becomes excited and start applauding, they should note the caveat—if not the proverbial elephant she placed in the room: “There must first be,” she said, “a national referendum” for the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to make that most significant decision.
Well, it has been the general understanding through the years of changing governments in Port of Spain that Trinidad and Tobago favours cutting the colonial apron- strings with the Privy Council in favour of the CCJ as its final appellate court. But it is yet to happen.
Indeed, the UNC administration of Basdeo Panday—of which Ms Persad-Bissessar was a cabinet minister—was initially instrumental in securing Port of Spain as the headquarters of the CCJ and securing commitments for financing this regional institution through a very enlightened US$100 million funding initiative by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). Those commitments, by the way, have been honoured through the years by succeeding regional administrations.
Incidentally, the repayment arrangements—with Jamaica and T&T being the major actors—have been almost, if not altogether settled. So indebtedness to the CDB for the CCJ is certainly not an issue.
The puzzling issue remains why—except for Barbados, Guyana, Belize and, more recently Dominica—all of the other Caricom member states (apart from Haiti and Suriname with their different legal systems), are yet to access the CCJ as their court of last resort, while subscribing to its original jurisdiction in the settlement of trade and other disputes.
If retaining appeals to the Privy Council on criminal matters but resorting to the CCJ’s final jurisdiction for civil cases is not basically revealing lack of confidence in the competence and integrity of this regional court, then why not scuttle the colonial relationship altogether?
Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said that accessing the CCJ as T&T’s final court is “inevitable” but first there must be a national referendum requiring “at least two-thirds or even a three-quarters majority vote” for cutting the current Privy Council link.
Neither PNM administrations under Patrick Manning’s leadership nor those of the UNC and now Ms Persad-Bissessar’s Partnership Government, with its overwhelming majority in the Lower House, is on record as ever attempting to pass legislation to cut the constitutional link with the Privy Council. And it is my understanding that there are no constitutional provisions for the conduct of a national referendum on anything.
Perhaps by the time the proposed debate between Opposition Leader Keith Rowley and his challenger, Pennelope Beckles-Robinson, takes place, if not sooner, we should be advised of the PNM’s position in relation to the CCJ as T&T’s final appeal court.
• Rickey Singh is a noted Guyana-born, Barbados-based Caribbean journalist.