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Raffique Shah


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Don't demonise soldiers

By Raffique Shah
March 24, 2013

The purpose of the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2013 is to add soldier-power to Government's crime-fighting initiatives, although if you read the one-clause legislation you would think otherwise. The bill simply speaks of extending to soldiers engaged in assisting the police in maintaining law and order "the same powers, authorities, privileges and immunities as are given by law to members of the Police Service".

Therein lie the fundamental deficiencies of the Bill, the distractions that have everyone focussing on the potential for "a military state", on how soldiers are likely to abuse their powers and privileges. Government spokespersons, in promoting passage of the legislation, have displayed an unbelievable ignorance of military matters. Those who oppose it appear equally uninformed.

One minister said the Bill would give soldiers the power to bear arms. This man must have been sleeping since he was born! Then the Bill stipulates that soldiers would enjoy the powers and privileges (not spelt out) only when they accompany the police in maintaining law and order—a weird kind of part-time policing. Imagine if you will a truckload of troops en route to wherever encountering a serious crime being committed, maybe two gangs engaged in a murderous shootout, or men gang raping a woman.

"Sergeant, you see that?" "Yeah…but we have no police with us…we can't take action." It's ludicrous, the wording of the legislation if it's taken literally. I should like to think that soldiers, and, indeed, civilians, always have the right to make "citizens' arrests" anywhere, anytime. It cannot be that soldiers are empowered to intervene to stop criminal activities only when they accompany police officers, or when they are in uniform.

The stupidity of this legislation emanates from desperation in Government as the crime tide rises to tsunami levels and they grope blindly seeking ways to stem it. There are facets of crime that cry out for action, but the Bill is silent on them. The first is to reduce serious crimes, which calls for multiple strategies, only two of which soldiers can help in—sheer numbers of armed, uniformed personnel on the streets, and vocational or sporting programmes aimed at giving at-risk youths alternatives to lives of crime.

Soldiers do not need police powers and privileges to accomplish these objectives. For decades, they have engaged in the former. Very recently, following a spate of murders and acts of arson in Laventille, they intervened successfully, their armed presence serving as a deterrent to brazen criminals. As for interacting with, and guiding, young people, soldiers have always done this. Other than routine soldiering, it's what they do best. In 1968, soldiers oversaw the establishment of the first national youth camp at Chaguaramas. In ensuing years, they lent their expertise to similar initiatives (CCC, MILAT, etc.).

Where we fail dramatically in dealing with crime, and where urgent action is required, is in relation to arrests and convictions. Outside of the commission of crimes, the rates of arrests and successful prosecutions are the main obstacles to bringing some order to the lawlessness that pervades the country. Responsibility for correcting this deficiency lies with the police and judicial officers. No amount of soldiers will have any impact here.

Let us be realistic: if the police, who are trained in investigation techniques, framing charges and securing witnesses, have fallen flat in solving crime, do the authorities seriously think soldiers will make a difference? To say that they will train soldiers in these disciplines does not make sense. Why not recruit new police officers instead and train them to do these tasks? Or, if there are soldiers who are so inclined, make them full time police officers as the representative association suggests. Everyone admits that the Service is below strength by almost 2,000 officers.

The judicial system is another contributor to runaway crime. Cases before the courts are invariably decades-old matters in which memories have faded, those involved older and sometimes wiser, and justice hardly dispensed with an even hand. I know successive chief justices have vowed to clean up these clogged stables, but they have all failed.

Unless the authorities address this major defect in dealing with crime, no amount of soldier-police will help. For decades, we have heard about "paper committals", about eliminating preliminary inquiries, about making use of modern technology. Yet, the courts remain stuck in a time warp. Magistrates have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of matters on their "lists". Many of them retire or die leaving behind huge numbers of part-heard matters.

Of course, the final flawed link in the crime-chain, the prisons system, is even more rusted and dysfunctional. Our prisons are at the same time a crime factory, a torture chamber and a living hell. I have never understood how prisons' officers maintain their sanity in that primitive environment. And if they are challenged, then the plight of prisoners, especially those who should never be in prison, is best imagined.

The deficiencies in the crime-fighting apparatus that I have noted here did not happen overnight, or under the current Government's watch. However, it is their lot to address them, to bring relief to a besieged populace. They will not reduce crime by employing soldiers as part time police officers. Such ill-advised action will yield no positive results. Instead, it will trigger unnecessary friction between these two units.

A word to those who believe that soldiers will abuse powers vested in them. Soldiers are not trigger-happy renegades who cannot wait to pounce on hapless people. They are not killing machines, as some persons make them out to be. Soldiers are fit, disciplined fighters whose peacetime role is helping the civil authorities and the citizenry—as they did during crises like the attempted coup of 1990 and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Don't demonise them.

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