Thursday 18 April 2024

Getting away with murder

April 17, 2024 - Even as we collectively lament a news agenda over-laden with accounts of indescribably horrific acts of murderous violence has come information that glimmers of comforting hope at times such as these remain stubbornly absent.

Whatever the official promises and declarations, there has clearly been no progress in reversing this country’s deplorable detection rate when it comes to murder.

Shane Superville’s GML story on Sunday noted a halving of the detection rate for homicides from an already modest 16% over the first three months of 2023, to 8% between January 1 and April 1 this year.

Put another way; this year so far, there were arrests in only 11 of the 142 reported murders during the period. Now, to be fair, this does not mean to say that is the end of that, since police investigations could well have since yielded positive results with these specific cases. So maybe, in the end, the statistic will be 10% or 12%. I don't know.

The sociologists and people whose work involves looking closely at these things, both globally and parochially, must certainly, at this stage, be developing conclusions on the impact of high, chronic impunity on societies such as ours, widespread fear being among the first and most intense impacts.

Some have also pointed to the changing nature of homicides in T&T, now dominated by organised activity and what some describe as “psychotic” events. Knowing more about these things can change the manner in which modus operandi are addressed.

For instance, the incidence of organised crime is in part being addressed through anti-gang legislation with more focused and increased penalties, and changes on the question of bail.

Even so, the fact that a murderer is much more likely than not to get away with such a grievous act, has had a far more influential impact on the current situation than the fear of punishment and the judicial interpretation of harsh laws.

In my view, the knowledge that you are highly likely to be caught and promptly punished provides conditions for a far higher level of deterrence. The deterrent effect of punishments, capital punishment for murder for example, has time and again been questioned by people who know much about these things.

What is needed is for murderers to be captured, brought to trial, and punished as promptly as possible. So, this is a matter first and foremost of enlightened, highly motivated, and well-resourced policing, followed by the efficient delivery of justice, and the ameliorative effects of punishment.

Preventative interventions are a key and necessary part of the required dynamic, but there is now an immediate need to bring violators to justice. How and why things reached this stage flow as parallel, not overlapping concerns.

The role of legislators, across the political aisle, also has to be founded on greater coherence – all sides listening closely to the other. What currently obtains in T&T is far from this ideal. It has not helped that political leadership on the subject has been grossly deficient when it comes to collective deliberation and intervention.

Crime detection rates are not the stuff of political one-upmanship, especially when loss of life is involved - however critical the quality of legislative and executive leadership. The experiences of others also signal the questionable impact of vigilantism and the serious danger of extra-judicial murder – both implicit in the lobby for more guns and the return to the “good old days” when the police are said to have been prepared to skip trials and go straight for fatal punishment.

There is a role for academia here in providing clearer direction on such matters to avoid unthinking revenge becoming a dangerous substitute for justice. This is particularly important at this dark time.

But there remains no “spin” to untangle the emotions that flow from feelings of hopelessness. No political grandiloquence capable of explaining away open evidence of incapacity. No resort to magical intervention as anodyne for the failings of human effort sufficient to bring assurance and confidence.

It is also significant that nothing about this is brand new or estimated in measures of electoral terms. My personal journalistic archives in recent decades do not record a time when, as a noted trend spanning any significant period, investigative outcomes yielded anything to suggest that a durable trend of effective policing was at hand.

The current situation in fact does not signify a relapse of any kind, but the escalation of persistent decline. Getting away with murder has long been a disturbing norm.


Thursday 11 April 2024

Children Beyond the Legal Boundaries

There is more than one reason to feel uncomfortable and emotionally queasy about some matters discussed at last Friday’s hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity with special focus on the question of child labour.

Numerous unpleasant memories, old and new, returned to heighten my discomfort over the framing of official positions expressed, albeit out of undeniable concern by state functionaries. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing but good intentions on show at the hearing.

Our own front-page headline on Saturday however flagged the possibility of a ‘Crackdown on Child Beggars’ while the substantive story was titled ‘TTPS Going After Child Beggars.’

Eight years ago, a collaboration involving several institutions including the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM), UNICEF, and the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) produced Our Children, Our Media: A Guide for Caribbean Media Practitioners.

I was part of the team, supervised by Steve Maximay, that worked on the publication whose main contributor was Barbadian journalist, Julius Gittens. It was the product of a series of regional journalism workshops and extensive research. The major thrust of the “guide” was to bring journalistic meaning and expression to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I had by then long been influenced, as a parent and journalist, by such a mandate. In 2007, for example, in an effort led by then UNIC National Information Officer in T&T, Elizabeth Solomon (now Caricom Assistant Secretary General, Foreign and Community Relations) we looked at media coverage guided by such rights.

Literature from that event left lying around at my home one day led to an accusation by my son Mikhail (then a minor) that his parents were depriving him of the right to hold opinions of his own! Almost every single friend and associate of mine has heard that story.

Later, in 2014, I covered the ILO’s Regional Initiative: Latin America and the Caribbean Free of Child Labour which produced a ‘Brasilia Declaration’ aimed at eliminating “the worst forms of child labour” by 2016 and all forms by the year 2020.

Our then Labour Minister, Errol McLeod, described child labour as “a sin” after affixing his signature to the Declaration in the Brazilian capital.

That proceedings from that very event helped nuance the discussion when President Lula da Silva (now back in the saddle) described his early life as a child vendor and, in the process, inserted the dilemma of economic necessity versus the strict application of law.

Last Friday, Opposition Senator Jearlean John, relayed a similar message when she spoke of her childhood days in Charlotteville selling fish and vegetables and the existence of what she described as a “cultural shift.” It was a singularly important intervention.

One of the key lessons I have learned along the way (two of my close childhood friends were grossly underpaid “apprentice” mechanics at 15 and 16 earning $2.50 - $5.00 a week), was that this issue of child labour requires broad social dialogue based on an understanding of much more than what the law permits or prohibits.

Supt Claire Guy-Alleyne’s professional brief and her quoted remarks last Friday touched on this, but insufficiently to exhibit what I consider to be her sensitivity to the numerous complexities.

As a well-informed presenter at more than one regional media training exercise, it was clear that the TTPS, through Guy-Alleyne and her team, has within its community a valuable resource to add the humanitarian dynamic to application of law.

But such is the nature of policing here, it was well beyond her brief to remind the JSC and this country that observance of the rights of the child constitutes a vital element of social, cultural, and economic rights.

Under such conditions of denial, our bungling of migrant rights has imposed an additional dimension we need to negotiate with greater care.

Denial of the right of migrant children to an education over a protracted period, followed by forceful application of criminal law to address its outcome, constitutes a brutal knee to the neck.

It is also similarly injurious that after almost one decade of the Brasilia photo-op, five years after the establishment of a National Steering Committee for the Prevention and Elimination of Child Labour, and the existence of “multiple programmes”, almost nothing has happened and the absence of data is being cited in defence of gross official negligence on this matter.

People, we are not getting our priorities right!

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Unfinished CCJ business

The month of April has arrived and met us all the poorer in the absence of several key people who had helped prescribe an alternative developmental pathway for us in T&T and the Caribbean Community.

For certain, moving the region from one phase to the next in pursuit of the kind of independence that breeds self-confidence and pride - based on real achievement - has proven as painful as it has been beneficial in small but meaningful steps.

Overcoming diffidence and self-loathing is a well-known challenge of the post-colonial experience – all sixty-one and a half years of it in our case. Those who dare engage the dynamics of change have, sadly, not appeared in significant numbers.

So, when last Saturday the news broke that Michael de la Bastide had died there was a futile scramble to put my hands on my copy of Within the Law, Memoirs of A Caribbean Jurist.

In it, I had borne witness not to superhuman powers and resolve, but to very human attributes upon encountering new and difficult terrain. Had I found the book, I could have filled this space with quips and anecdotes to support this contention of essential humanity.

Only three days before this had come word that Désirée Bernard of Guyana – another member of the inaugural Bench of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) had passed. This came almost three months after the death of Dutch jurist Jacob Wit who, in 2005, had sat alongside de la Bastide and Bernard and two others in the brave, new world of the CCJ.

Also among them 19 years ago this month, was late Guyana-born Caribbean jurist/legal luminary, Duke Pollard, who left us in 2022.

The important nature of the task embraced by these Caribbean icons has been captured in the numerous, fitting accolades that have reached the public space throughout the region.

It must have grieved them heavily though that the commitments of the 2001 undertaking and 2005 inauguration had dwindled to timid apprehension and cruel active and passive ambivalence. For instance, late prime minister Basdeo Panday had once lobbied forcefully to host the headquarters of the CCJ and spoke eloquently in support of its establishment.

His subsequent campaign for urgent reform of the national constitution (which is currently being considered since his passing in January) significantly omitted mention of final appellate status for the CCJ.

This is despite, even during his rigid about turn on the matter, conceding that the fear of political interference and the potential for disproportionate financial obligations, were completely unfounded given the process for the appointment of judges and the Court’s innovative funding mechanism.

Today, in 2024, some of these baseless concerns have returned to haunt us. The Caribbean legal fraternity is yet to fully ventilate these subjects in the public space – the practice of law seemingly being the stuff of cloistered virtue.

In fact, we keep hearing nonsense, even from professional advocates, about “we not in the CCJ” despite existing, mandatory compliance as a court of original jurisdiction on questions of the revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and T&T having been the subject of judgments both in favour and against single market practices by this country.

To his credit, attorney general Reginald Armour has repeatedly flagged the issue. On Saturday, on hearing of the passing of the former Chief Justice, he said: “In acknowledging his indelible contribution to the quality of this Republic’s proud development since its independence, the people of Trinidad and Tobago can now contribute to completing his dream of replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice.”

Armour should now get all his colleagues to more aggressively pursue full adoption of all functions of the CCJ, especially as part of the process of reforming our constitution.

This, more than any statue or street name or fancy statement, is the least to be expected as a fitting tribute to Michael de la Bastide and the team of pioneers who helped us inch forward to complete the act of our independence. Sad that he and some of the other leading pioneers have not lived to see us get there.

Thursday 28 March 2024

I-Spy and Espionage

Just when you thought your cover was intact and nobody would recognise you as secret agent WG1007, up comes your so-called bredrin, RS07, out in the open! This had to have been a public confession inspired by a long and hard look in the mirror and chronic over-consumption of sugar.

Who would have thought former media colleague, Raffique Shah, would have at this stage in life blown his cover, and in the process, the rest of ours? My jaw still hangs low after reading the newspaper column last Sunday in which he blows an otherwise sturdy lid off a virtual latrine of intrigue and mystery.

Formerly known as MarathonMan001, he must surely be going off his rockers. He must have been demoted to ShortSprint000 before being assigned RS07 – “R” for “retired” and that last “0” (down from 007) lingering like ganja smoke in a 1970s blocko. Who would have thought there were once two “0”s and a guy with dark hair who could shoot straight-straight and talk smooth?

But there I was thinking I had got away with being “a CIA” and “bringing in the Yankee dollars” – despite being exposed by whispering gossipmongers the other day. Even a threat of freshly pressed court clothes did not hush idle mouths.

If I had to be in the Wikileaks cables, it would have had to do with oyster cocktails and lambi souse - not intelligence, even though I does read plenty books.

I mean, I won’t have made the grade. I probably don’t pray too good, and I had to borrow money for my own house and not jumped any HDC queue. So fat chance I would have ever been promoted to triple “0” status.

I have been on my own. No Iluminati or Lodge, or Big Pharma or 5G. Not even a spiritual advisor … or two. And to be clear, I have been to Guanapo … on hikes only … and without candles and live chickens and/or goats and long sharp knives.

Plenty church thing in this season of palm leaves and abeer and iftar though. Plenty “advising” and praying. Agents busy, busy. Crimes to be investigated. Phones to be tapped. Lovers to be stalked.

Reminds me of the time we staked out this horning couple. They liked paddle boat rides down in south. The guy was a writer and the other man’s wife was a spoilt brat rich girl whose conniving husband stole a love letter from her purse and tried extorting money from the loving couple.

Then he tried to have his wife killed, and we broke the case because of a key. A simple key! That was spy work of the highest order. Oh, wait! Sorry. That was Hansley Ajodha’s latest film, Infidelity. I get mixed up between fact and fiction sometimes.

It’s like that time I could have sworn state resources were being used to build a church in the bush. Real prayers were said. ProjectManager000001 was skillfully at work. Or was this, too, the stuff of twisted imagination, someone having had too much mauby before sleep?

Before that, the bush church in the late 1970s had a big barrel for Kool-Aid … on Guyanese government property. I hear they want that one back too, only this time with COVID vaccines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to keep Big Pharma happy and to drive masked black and brown populations down to manageable levels.

All of this, of course, to deny evidence that the earth is in fact flat, and that the southern coast of Trinidad reaches the very edge. Yeah right, they “landed on the moon”, and everybody knows 9-11 was an inside job with the eventual aim of controlling the world.

When I was a child, I always wanted to be a spy, to investigate and to expose these kinds of lies. I kinda ended up in journalism because of that. But what is it with these people? Don’t they want to know the truth? Raf has blown our cover! Is there some kind of secret sign to indicate that somebody else needs to drop out of the mission too? I can hold my ring finger down with my thumb while twitching the other three.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Art's higher purpose - our several conversations

A glaucoma-themed art exhibition last week could have found few better locations than an eye clinic for a launch. Though distracted and distressed by that fact that we were just one block away from discovery of an outrageous, murderous crime in south Valsayn, there appeared, to me, to be an ironic spark of artistic light.

In any event, there was no way I would have dared miss Patrick Roberts’ The Windows – A Conversation with Glaucoma – a collection of mainly acrylic and pastel works depicting several East Port of Spain/Laventille physical structures whose artistic meaning, for Patrick, extended beyond the impact of mere architecture.

True, the artist was a QRC schoolmate, did the cover for my first collection of poems in 1977, and we knew each other well from art class and my brief (and highly unsuccessful) affair with rugby decades ago.

But it interested me most that the experience was to occur amid ophthalmic paraphernalia and involve a group of people with an interest in one or both issues of physical sight and artistic vision.

I am not a strong advocate of art as an explicit platform for the promotion of causes; since I believe that good art already has the forceful, implicit impact of influencing personal and public opinion. It need not amount to sloganeering or being paraded as placards. Though, I suppose, if we wished it can be employed that way.

But here, in Valsayn, was an example of visual art relating a story of growing sightlessness and which, in the process, urges greater attention to this country’s leading cause of preventable blindness. Such, at least, was its impact on me.

This is what some describe as art’s “higher purpose.” Not any kind of esoteric, spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but an actual connecting of the creative imagination with actions to be taken and issues requiring attention.

In some countries, there has been recognition of the value of public art displays to promote notions of cohesion and to encourage support for actions to mitigate social ills. Only last week I was lamenting the removal of the student art we all admired on the wall bordering the now-demolished Powergen generating facility along Wrightson Road.

The wall remains standing, for now, and so too should the art have remained in place. This, I thought, was myopia both as metaphor and as underlying social condition. Maybe there are other plans about which I have not heard. I extend apologies in advance if there is indeed a Plan B.

As for Patrick, with vision now restricted – or let us say, influenced by - the use of just one eye, his work displays a remarkable degree of depth perception, which is a function not generally observed among people affected by glaucoma.

It was ophthalmologist, Dr Debra Bartholomew, who explained this to the few in the room who had not before understood such a limitation. Here was an artist, with impaired vision, displaying multi-dimensional features of the subjects of his work.

Now, if that does not sound a note of hope little else can. The occasion also provided both Dr Bartholomew and Dr Rishi Sharma of the Caribbean Eye Institute (where the exhibition was staged) with the opportunity to paint pictures of an increasingly urgent situation.

Dr Bartholomew, for example, described Tobago as a virtual glaucoma hotspot (my words) and encouraged testing as a crucial step that needs to be taken as soon as possible. Dr Sharma established the important connection between a rising tide of Non-Communicables such as diabetes and hypertension and growth in the number of glaucoma cases nationally.

On that note, one member of the audience urged similar action, through art, to highlight the scourge of NCDs, and its connections with glaucoma and other health challenges. If Patrick had envisaged a “conversation”, this was it!

“The Silent Thief”, as glaucoma has come to be known, and as Patrick related, does not immediately exhibit major symptoms, but when detected requires immediate action since vision loss through this condition is irreversible.

The treatments include eye drops, laser treatment, and surgery which may later become necessary.

Now, usually, you would find this kind of material in this space earlier in the week, and I claim no specific expertise. But I can tell you that the Glaucoma Conversation which continues until Saturday contains instruction in art, medicine, and addressing much wider social disabilities.


Thursday 14 March 2024

Caricom’s Haiti Moment

Despite Ariel Henry’s resignation offer - and it is provisional upon several important pre-requisites - Caricom deliberations and action on Haiti have still fallen short of an ultimate solution, but so has every other prescription from everyone else.

The main difference, though, is that the regional grouping is engaging the deadly situation fully mindful of the contagion of chaos, the requirements of enlightened self-interest, and a sense of fraternal responsibility.

The latter, of course, prevails even though Haiti membership had defied even CLR James’s notion of “natural (West Indian) unity.” But the regional movement has long crossed that important and seriously difficult Rubicon.

It is important that Caricom has also, at least now, recognised the slow, incremental nature of any lasting resolution of longstanding anomalies and dysfunctionalities in that country.

Invasions, even by invitation (whose?), do not have the best record of success, unless there are Plans A, B, and C that take street-level realities into account. The question of what happens next is thus of supreme importance.

The absence of Ariel Henry from the country provided both opportunities and challenges. It was felt by some that his questionable occupation of office since the murder of Jovenel Moise, including Henry’s dubious support base, helped suspend rather than encourage enthusiastic global support in the current crisis.

For example, growth in financial support for a Kenya-led UN Multinational Security Support Mission in Haiti, up to Monday when Caricom met, appeared to have stalled.

With gangs, and their barely closeted political allies firmly in charge of major sections of Port-au-Prince, and open aspirations being expressed by known miscreants, there still appear to be few durable options available even in a post-Henry era.

This may come in the form of an internationally supervised, circumscribed or “defensive” democracy - meaning that the main tenets of liberal democracy would be made to adjust and match the limited ability of the country to function in accordance with such values.

This is, in fact, not an unknown Haitian reality, including the role of thugs and other criminals.

Easy for the rest of us to say, I suppose. But there are reality checks concerned onlookers to developments there need to undertake. Well-meaning naivete rooted in romantic notions of a first black republic have for the moment to be put aside.

Ditto the tendency to over-simplify the deeply intractable difficulties of Haiti. This goes beyond merely saying “I’m sorry” or calling on Caricom to fix things quickly.

For Jamaica and The Bahamas – both represented on the Caricom Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Haiti – ongoing strife in Haiti is a lived reality in their respective countries given geographical proximity and relatively easy access by sea.

It has not helped that these two neighbours have not always managed the process of integrating fleeing Haitians, and some hard questions remain regarding the forcible expulsion (refoulement) of asylum-seekers (as has been the case of T&T and the Venezuelans, by the way).

Some may contend such responses are justifiable, given the fact of limited absorptive capacity – geographical, economic, social, and cultural in nature. Yet, they do nothing to alleviate underlying causative factors.

Among the “things to be done”, therefore, is for our countries to get such international commitments right. This extends beyond the crisis in Haiti.

We have been through some of this before. The advocacy of a few influential leaders back in 1995-98 to promote Haitian membership of the Caricom fold had offered implicit assurances of an ability to mitigate the possibilities for collateral regional injury. It simply has not turned out that way.

Regional diplomatic folk speak quietly of the numerous challenges, including uneven reciprocal support when required on hemispheric and international stages. This is that troublesome sibling at the dinner table.

Yet, there is cause to consider a meaningful role in ensuring that such a regional democratic hot spot is urgently attended to. Monday’s meeting in Jamaica may have led to a variety of conclusions in the public sphere, but it certainly signalled engagement of the quality some considered to have been beyond our capabilities.

There is a lot more to be done, both by us and others. The UN Humanitarian Needs Response Plan for Haiti, with a budget of US$674 million, now stands at a fraction of what is needed.

The Caricom meeting attracted attention and active participation from a wide cross-section of the international community. I have seen where it has been described as a mere “talk shop.” There are people who have clearly not been following what has been happening. This is a significant Haiti moment for Caricom. But it's not yet over.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Art’s revolutionary ways

Emotional haze of Saharan proportions typically hovers over and permeates the season just ended - conditions under which it is best to be patient about many things. For example, few there may have been to have been discomfited by the Cro Cro judgment and now, regional political rulings on some musical content. But there should there be many more to consider measured caution on such matters.

For certain, crass, artless content is far less likely to engender open empathy once assaulted, than craft bearing subtle, instantly undetectable daggers aimed at the heart. Yet, even so, the application of justice and politics is capable of both rendering and rending fine coats of insulation over otherwise protected products of creative imagination.

The fine points of justice – an uncloistered virtue open to the outspoken comments of ordinary folk such as I – often crave fineries not easily found in the crudities of daily life. “People,” James Baldwin once famously said, “evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.”

This is rather difficult, clumsy stuff that marks all areas of art. And we may note that literature and art have at times connoted aggressive subversion and revolutionary intent. Guyana’s President Ali, for instance, invokes Marley’s ostensibly benign messaging - even in the face of Marcus Garvey’s subversive anti-colonial inspiration woven into most of what the Jamaican artist had to offer.

Within “Trinibad” there are traces of Baldwin’s formulation of an alternative language to both understand and to describe current realities in what is being offered by these performers. It has been the same in other jurisdictions represented by different musical and artistic genres.

This is not to deny law its proper place. Incitement to acts of criminal violence is unacceptable under any circumstance. So, too, the willful defaming of people, or breaching of their (relative) right to privacy.

Most of us in the movement to promote freedom of expression globally agree this right is subject to permissible limitations – hate speech and defamation among them. But the boundaries to be drawn between such a right and acceptable exceptions invoke a variety of difficult considerations left in the hands of wise legislators and judges.

Surely, the Law Association is currently hard at work deliberating on such matters in the public interest and must be considering accompanying public debate and discussion. However, those of us who have been active on the question of removing all traces of criminal defamation from the statutes understand general ambivalence.

When the subject was debated in our parliament ten years ago, there was rare bipartisan agreement on the applicability of jail when sentencing for acts of criminal defamation. What followed was a half measure referencing “malicious defamatory libel known to be false.”

This is important to remember amid recent developments that have cast the subject of freedom of expression, through creative content, under the spotlight. There is not likely to be strong opposition to the imposition of criminal penalties for specified creative and other expression.

We are already used to “banning” as a coping mechanism. But this has become somewhat anachronistic as an option, since the arms of official prohibition are difficult to extend beyond the sitting ducks of traditional, domestic media.

There is also a certain nonsense associated with repeated references to “airplay”, and its bearing on the popularity of contemporary music, that belies the fact that young people are more abundantly keyed into online platforms than any other medium.

References to “airplay” also invoke notions of official control through outright banning, ill-advised content quota restrictions, and what I have long considered to be our ready resort to prohibition. In some countries we know well, such an instinct extends to other institutions such as libraries, schools, and art galleries.

There is also an opportunity for science to determine psychological triggers and impacts and the factors that predispose people differently across socio-cultural divides. This goes beyond amateur intuition.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Nonsense is nonsense. I however reserve the right to listen to, read, or view the nonsense of my choice. Additionally, people in government always want “positive” messaging to counteract the “negatives” they paraded while being out of office. In some instances, the “negatives” are the outcomes of their own inaction or incompetence.

Meanwhile, look around you and note instances in which books and art and music are giving the middle finger to the status quo. I say keep them coming!


Getting away with murder

April 17, 2024 - Even as we collectively lament a news agenda over-laden with accounts of indescribably horrific acts of murderous violence ...