Human rights group laments non-debate on police reforms
April 25, 2004
The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) is disappointed by the government's failure to debate the Disci-plined Forces Commission's proposals for police reform.
"They have lost an opportunity," says Mike McCor-mack of the GHRA, one of the groups that submitted proposals to the commission for its review of the police force.
"A new police commissioner is now in place. But he cannot call on the work of the commission to produce reform because the work is not standing as yet," McCormack explains.
As part of its terms of reference the commission was directed to give priority to its inquiry into the police force and produce a report within three months.
It has been nearly four months since the commission's report was laid in the National Assembly. But there has still been no discussion of its recommendations despite the urgency that was placed on its work.
McCormack says that while the GHRA was disappointed with the commission's major recommendations, a debate would have provided the opportunity for discussing them.
He adds that the proposals dealing with unlawful extra-judicial killings are the weakest part of the entire report and are of no use to the modernisation of the force.
"All they said was the public did not understand and if they did then there wouldn't be a problem... That is a shortsighted view of the problem..." he says, noting that the recommendations in this area only served to reinforce the image of the force as a militia.
McCormack laments that nothing was done about Article 138 of the Constitu-tion, which allows policemen to use deadly force under a number of circumstances. He described the provisions as obsolete.
He says the GHRA is also concerned about recommendations for community policing, which are also weak.
In spite of the GHRA's reservations about some of the proposals, McCormack says the possibility of even discussing these issues has been lost in the failure to start the debate.
Raphael Trotman of the PNCR believes the government lacks the political will to introduce what he says are the sweeping reforms recommended by the commission.
"The reforms are far- reaching and if they are introduced they will have the positive effect of removing administrative or political control currently placed on the police force," he says, concluding that it would give the force the freedom it needs for its natural development.
But with arms smuggling, kidnapping and money laundering and the drug trade still critical issues, he says it was expected that the report would have been given some degree of urgency.
It was a sentiment that was not ignored by the commission itself.
"Concern was expressed that past reports on similar topics have languished on library shelves and have not been fully implemented," the commission noted in the introduction to the report.
"Many of the changes we propose are long overdue, and some were indeed proposed years ago; their implementation must not be further delayed."
Trotman points out that when the government's record with similar reports is examined it is not surprising that there is a delay to act on the findings. In fact, he says, it shows that there is a deliberate effort to stymie and prevent the adoption of the report's recommendations.
None of the recommendations of the Symonds Group report on police reform have been implemented. Nor have those of the report of the joint Government/Opposition Border/National Security Committee, which was presented to the Parliament in August 2001.
Trotman thinks the activation of these commissions is for the sole purpose of giving the government credibility. He says while the administration continues to exhibit a willingness to be party to numerous conventions, the conditions are breached more than they are observed. In the case of bipartisan arrangements, he says, it leads the interested parties to believe that there is goodwill and progress.
The commission's report also recommended that the Parliament ask the government to draft a five-year plan that would be used to inform their final report, which is due in the next two weeks. However, nothing has been done, although Trotman says there are qualified people within the Ministry of Home Affairs and the force capable of drafting such a plan.
He also thinks that confidence in the commission may have also been affected by the PPP's admission that it would not be bound by the final report.
This stand was taken after the appointment of Dr Harold Lutchman to the commission, following the resignation of human rights activist Maggie Beirne. Lutchman, who had testified before the commission for the Trade Union Congress, was nominated by the PNCR to fill the vacancy. The PPP only expressed concern about his placement on the commission after his appointment.
Trotman says a statement of that nature ought to have been rebuked by the government to restore faith in the process.
"Government did not reaffirm its commitment to the process or faith in the system. The government's silence speaks volumes to its lack of commitment," he says.
Looking at the report holistically, he says, the party is pleased with the work of the commission, although, there were some recommendations that could have been stronger, like the proposals that deal with the procedure for the grant of firearm licences. The party recommended that there be a process for the surrender of all firearms, both legal and illegal, and new criteria for re-issuance. The commission says general repossession could not be done without infringing important legal procedural safeguards, though it could be done on proper grounds in each individual case.
Since the report was submitted, questions have been raised about some of the grants that have been made. The two most notable cases are those of suspected hitman Axel Williams and more recently Gopaul Chowtie, who was killed during a confrontation with police after a robbery.
It is in this context that Trotman says the PNCR's stand on the issue has been vindicated.
"Time has borne us out and vindicated us... we believe the commission should resume its work in the light of the revelation."
Trotman says the party is also concerned about the proposals that pertain to community policing groups, which he says need to be regulated by legislation because of their clashes with the police.
Otherwise, there always lies the potential for abuse or misuse. At the start of the year GAP/WPA's Sheila Holder in Stabroek News' Current Affairs predicted that the report would have got lost amid the revelations about the phantom force and the death squad.
That it has yet to be debated is not surprising, she says, almost four months since she wrote that the inability of the police force leadership to rebuild confidence in its policing skills would be one of the issues that would continue to engage the society.
And while Holder thinks the government's delay in the examination of the report is not surprising, she also says it is symptomatic of all the country's administrations. That is, the appointment of commissions whose findings or proposals are never acknowledged.
Like Trotman, she argues that it is often taken for granted that the appointment of the commission stems from a genuine willingness to deal with the problem.
"But it is all about partisan interests not national interests..." she says, while suggesting that the only way the government agrees to appoint commissions is if they are coerced by the parliamentary opposition. She reasons that this is also the only way that the recommendations can be adopted, though she doesn't think it is the best way.
"The opposition doesn't have the wherewithal to ensure this happens and until the oversight of parliament is put into practice all the chips are in the hands of the government."