Delivering the first of a series of “Good Governance Lectures,” put on by the national unity government here, Justice Saunders said “the people of the Federation, like the entire Caribbean, must jealously guard and protect the rule of law”.
Saunders, a judge with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), said while Caribbean governments and parliaments have their role to play in promoting the rule of law, and have been doing so, the immense power wielded by some prime ministers in the region can create problems.
“One of the challenges to the rule of law in the Caribbean lies in the dangers associated with the over-centralization of power in the hands of some prime ministers,” Justice Saunders said, speaking on the topic “Laws for Peace, Order and Good Governance: Promoting Democracy, Natural Justice and the Rule of Law”.
He told the audience at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) building on Friday that the recently published book on Caribbean Constitutional Law, by Tracy Robinson, Arif Bulkan and himself drew attention to the situation.
“In fact we labelled the dominant system of governance in the English-speaking Caribbean as being prime ministerial government, that is a system where the prime minister wields immense power as the head of government and typically controls the majority in the houses in parliament.
“Prime Ministerial government is evident where there is this concentration of executive and legislative power in one individual and invariably it leads to a culture of patronage and dependency.”
Justice Saunders said the problem was aggravated by a winner-take-all electoral system, where it is possible for a government to win a vast majority of the seats with just a little over fifty per cent of the total votes.
“In many countries we don’t have proportional representation, we have single member constituencies, first pass the poll systems and so it is possible for a government to win the vast majority of the seats with just a little over 50 per cent of the total votes. So this is one of the problems that we have in the region that reflects itself as a challenge to the rule of law.”
In the lecture, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines-born judge who has been with the CCJ since 2005, also identified another challenge related to political parties that become the government.
“Political parties that become the leadership, becomes the executive, becomes the government, there is no legislative framework for ensuring that these parties operate in a democratic manner and that is also a challenge to the rule of law because if these parties are run undemocratically then the results of that lack of democracy naturally becomes a matter of public concern as and when a party gets into office.
“So all of these measures are matters which we need to address, if the rule of law is to be enhanced,” he said, emphasizing that good governance legislation including integrity in public life legislation and freedom of information laws can help promote much required transparency and accountability.
Justice Saunders said that Caribbean people have come a long way from being “bought and sold like chattel” to regress into the shackles of the mind.
“Just imagine, less than two centuries ago, that is just about five generations ago, our forefathers were looked upon as nothing. We were bought and sold like chattel,” he said, while citing the late Professor Rex Nettleford, whom he said referred to the Emancipation Act of 1834 as “our collective birth certificate.”
“That is when we became humans. That’s when in the eyes of the law, we ceased being property and it is from that time that we can count steady and rapid progress in reclaiming our dignity and in having our human rights respected, and that continuous struggle also included a struggle against the yoke of colonialism, such that eventually we won our right to self-determination, so when you look at it in historical terms in less than two centuries, we have come from nothing to proud and independent people,” Justice Saunders said.
He told the audience that if the Emancipation Proclamation “was our birth certificate, then our Independence constitutions can be likened to the document that marks our coming of age.
“But but with independence, with adulthood, our Independence constitutions have not only enhanced rights but also new responsibilities.”
Quoting the Barbadian writer George Lamming, Justice Saunders said that Lamming “paints a very vivid picture of the background against which we take up these post-colonial responsibilities.”
He said Lamming is quoted as saying that “colonialism was not a physical cruelty. Indeed the colonial experience of my generation was almost wholly without violence—no torture, no concentration camps, no mysterious disappearance of hostile natives, no army encamped with orders to kill—the Caribbean endured a different kind of subjugation. It was the terror of the mind, a daily exercise in self-mutilation. This was the breeding ground for every uncertainty of self.”
Justice Saunders said that remnants of this self-mutilation can still be seen among post-colonial Caribbean people.
“A major challenge we still face, as one of our most famous artists has said is to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, to imbue ourselves with the confidence as every responsible adult who must stand on his (her) own feet.
“Yes, at times we may wish to emulate or draw on the experiences of others if the example is useful and suitable to our unique circumstances but we need to be firmly aware that we do possess the ability to harness the intellect and we are actually best placed to interrogate our own societies and to determine for ourselves the optimum measures that must be taken to improve it,” he said.
““If I had to sum up our principal responsibility in this age, I would say that it is to maintain and enhance the Rule of Law. To my mind, that is an essential platform for achieving and maximizing social and economic progress,” said Justice Saunders.
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