February 15, 2001 by Co-ordinator Caribbean Justice: Shelagh Simmons

Caribbean Court of Justice
- a "hanging court"?

Dear Editor

Although we have no objection to a Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in principle, we certainly have deep reservations where the death penalty is concerned.

The fact is, despite any amount of denial from governments, there is a genuine fear that the rationale behind the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council's replacement with a regional court is simply to carry out executions.

That is not something merely imagined by organisations like ours. It is as a result of clear statements to that effect from politicians. Just listen to the responses of the Prime Ministers of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago when September's Lewis judgment was announced! It was "another compelling reason" to ditch the Privy Council, fumed P J Patterson. The decision "gives urgent relevance to the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice", stormed Basdeo Panday. So the link between the CCJ and hanging has been made not by human rights groups but by politicians. They therefore cannot complain when we draw attention to it.

It is also worth remembering that the Privy Council has no power to abolish the death penalty, even if it wanted to. The rulings that have prompted such an extreme reaction have been nothing more than attempts to set minimum standards of justice in an area where they have hitherto been sadly lacking.

It has frequently been claimed that a CCJ is necessary because judges in London make rulings that do not take the social conditions and the views of the Caribbean people into account. Whether such factors should actually be influential in applying the law is open to question. In any event, since judges from outside the Caribbean - in fact, from any of the 50+ countries of the Commonwealth - can apparently apply to sit on the CCJ, it is difficult to see how the 'familiarity with local conditions' argument can be sustained.

With regard to judicial independence and freedom from political interference, there are some commentators who believe a CCJ's judges would make similar decisions to the JCPC. Should that prove to be true, regional AGs have a ready answer. If replacing the court because they dislike its rulings doesn't produce the results they want, they have another trick up their sleeves - changing their Constitutions to get round any decisions with which they happen to disagree.

Just a year before the Privy Council's Lewis ruling, the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, was telling the 12th Commonwealth Law Conference in Kuala Lumpur that even if governments disagreed with JCPC rulings relating to the death penalty "...... they have an obligation whilst it remains the Final Court of Appeal from their countries to obey and carry out its orders. It would be a serious breach of the Rule of Law for any government to disobey the order of its Final Court of Appeal" (emphasis ours).

Yet this is precisely what his government and others are planning to do. There would be nothing to stop them undermining the CCJ in exactly the same way, and there would be no guarantee such abuse would stop at the death penalty. That should ring loud alarm bells with every citizen of every country in the region.

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