Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announces State of Emergency in the St. James Parish in January 2018. Source: Jamaica Information Service.
Earlier this month, the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) government declared a new round of States of Emergencies (SOEs) in seven out of Jamaica’s 14 parishes-geographical and political sub-units. Of course, Jamaica is no stranger to using emergency powers as a criminal justice tool. Since the island’s independence in 1962, multiple declarations have occurred every decade or so—mainly for criminal justice management. This latest declaration represents another episode of the Holness government’s intensified use of SOEs—in conjunction with other quasi-emergency measures like Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs)—to dampen the country’s perennially high homicide rate which registered the highest murder rate in the Latin American and Caribbean region for the second straight year in 2021.
Since late 2017, both SOEs and ZOSOs have been declared numerous times across the island. These approaches have normalized emergency powers as a criminal justice tool. In terms of ZOSOs, they remain an unbroken quasi-emergency power tool and their declarations have been set in stone across a wide cross-section of Jamaican communities. However, the deployment of SOEs and ZOSOs (with emphasis on the former) has done little to alleviate the national homicide rate––despite a small decline from the 2017 zenith of 1647 homicides to the 2021 tally of 1322. Instead, the SOEs function as stop-gap measures deployed consistently and paradoxically as part of the new “normal” criminal justice toolkit of government.
Consequently, the much-publicized SOEs of 2018-2020 (with some parishes being under such a declaration for over two years) have produced marginal results, at the national level at least. Then again, Jamaica’s security apparatus rarely provides adequate statistics for one to be able to make a meaningful comparison at the local level pre-SOE versus post-SOE declaration. Holness’ and, by extension, Jamaica’s quagmire is comparable to Nayib Bukele’s mano duro approach in El Salvador in terms of the potential for rights abuses despite making some homicides steadily decreasing. Like El Salvador, there are concerns that the mass detentions and arrests (many of them arbitrary as local and international human rights groups have noted) will not lead to the desired national reduction of homicides.
Despite aspects of past SOEs (specifically 2018-2020) being deemed unconstitutional in terms of extended detentions violating constitutional liberties and the declaration being vague as to what constituted an “emergency” by the island’s Supreme Court in 2020, the Holness administration (which still has a pending challenge on said ruling) has not relented in declaring SOEs in November 2021 and again in 2022. The government’s reliance on SOEs is problematic and has implications for both the Holness government and Jamaican citizens.
What SOEs Mean for Ordinary Jamaicans
Jamaica has a sordid reputation for abusing emergency powers as a criminal justice correlative from the colonial (1865 Morant Bay Uprising and martial law) to postcolonial era (2010 Tivoli Incursion). In these episodes, security forces—both police and military—have engaged in practices that include arbitrary and unlawful mass extended detentions, extrajudicial killings, and internal renditions. The work by the Office of the Public Defender has shown this to be the case for the declarations covering the 2018-2020 period. These abuses are directly associated with the increased powers of arrest, detection, and detention given to the security forces during a state of emergency that allow for the derogation of citizens’ rights. These sweeping powers have created the public perception that there will be repeated constitutional violations of citizens’ rights, especially those from lower socio-economic strata when these declarations are imposed. In the end, the consistent declarations of SOEs result in persistent violations of ordinary citizens’ rights.
Implications for the Holness government
The issue of crime can attract the usual political theatrics associated with liberal democracy. The Holness administration was initially optimistic on the campaign trail, but have been confronted by the violent realities of Jamaica. There must be some response to the perennial crime which the administration thought they could magically fix. The opposition, the People’s National Party (PNP), has time and time again called for a crime plan to address Jamaica’s homicide dilemma—a move rejected by the Holness administration. However, the response by the Holness administration is grounded in using SOEs as the go-to crime plan. Therefore, Jamaica faces a problem where crime and its resultant response are treated as an either/or scenario. This binary suggests that if you uphold the constitutional rights of citizens vis-à-vis the state security emphasis on criminal justice, you can be labeled either a patriot or a traitor. In such a scenario, human rights groups, the judiciary, and critical scholars could feasibly be designated as the latter, while the JLP and Holness are treated as heroes.
The PNP has sometimes used its power in the Senate to withdraw support from the JLP’s SOE-centric approach, such as in December 2018, November 2021, and recently again. While the PNP seeks to project itself as upholding constitutional order, the governing JLP sees its duty as using the constitutional emergency provisions to preserve what it sees as the preeminent right of all citizens—the right to life—albeit, with less than convincing results.
Beyond Claims of Exception
It is entirely plausible that the (mis)information around the dichotomy of normal versus exceptional policing could be resolved. However, given Jamaica’s political landscape, this seems easier said than done: both parties have traded the usual political accusations as it relates to the support (or lack thereof) around SOEs. Even a former national military leader and police commissioner, Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, recently weighed in on how moot this normal versus SOE policing debate really is. But the question remains: what is to be done to address Jamaica’s high homicide rate?
Since it is imperative for citizens, politicians, and scholars to understand what is at stake in Jamaica, the country’s past needs to be considered when it comes to the security versus rights debate. The Jamaican state has repeatedly shown that “collateral damage” seems more relevant than catching the real criminals. This is why a number of Jamaicans—especially from less affluent areas—are often confused as to why they have to sacrifice their constitutional rights to ensure the state has an appropriate policy response, especially when state abuses are clear and present realities. Additionally, both major political parties’ respective ties to the criminal underworld (past or present) continue to dog the country’s response to crime in the country. One report noted that terminating such ties will go a long way in taking out the partisan response to crime on the island and, by extension, eliminate the so-called “safe” electoral seats that have engendered this patron-client relationship.
With waning public support for SOEs it is high time for a bipartisan approach be put on the table to fight crime—one which focuses not only on reactive solutions to law enforcement, but a proactive one that examines a plethora of issues that facilitate crime on the island. These included the lack of socio-economic opportunities, limited technological improvements and training for the police, and substantive prisoner rehabilitation to curb recidivism.
The normal versus exceptional debate betrays what scholarship and common sense tell us: the lines are not often blurred and political interests often lead to an expansion of executive power. This is a concern in Jamaica as well as in other countries and comes at the detriment of citizens’ constitutional rights. The Holness administration’s reactive approach has watered down the intended purpose of an SOE as a tool of last resort. Instead, it has become the primary policy tool. Jamaica is not a unique in its approach to States of Emergency for law enforcement—Brazil, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and even Trinidad and Tobago have implemented their own versions to combat violent crime. However, what is unique about the Holness administration’s is that over the last six years it continues to insist that this policy tool is the only solution—even if devoid of constitutionality and ignorant of the concerns of Jamaicans caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Jermaine Young is an Assistant Professor at Howard University, where he teaches and researches on the nexus of emergency powers (martial law, states of emergencies, and Zones of Special Operations) and criminal justice in colonial and postcolonial Jamaica. Twitter: @Jermain96309072.