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An historic moment

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I was unable to view the launching of the Caribbean Court of Justice in Trinidad on Saturday, July 16, but nonetheless felt the pride of this historical moment. About 43 years ago, the former colonies of Britain began the formal process of decolonisation, but with the exception of Guyana that process seemed never to have been consummated. The lingering issue was the fact that we continued to depend on the British Privy Council to be our final court of appeal. {{more}}

Our independence was never complete, if any independence could ever be said to be complete. There has, for long been talk of abolishing appeals to the Privy Council but a combination of political infighting and a legacy of low self-esteem seemed to have stalled things. Really, it was the same kind of atmosphere and thinking that surfaced and helped to delay and complicate the movement toward independence.

Sections of society expressed immense fear of being removed from the cloak of Britain and certainly of divorcing themselves from the Queen as Head of State. To become a republic was a bad word, never mind the United States of America, think only of the banana republics. The first set of problems facing us as independent countries reinforced the fears of many who associated them with independence and supposed deficiencies.

We have moved beyond that but the fear of abolishing the Privy Council has remained. Part of the opposition to it is unequivocally political. Think of Basdeo Panday who was one of the foremost advocates of the Court and of Trinidad and Tobago as its headquarters and ask why he is now not fully behind it. Then there is Jamaica where the arguments being used against it, boosted by a Privy Council ruling that is often distorted are truly amazing.

One understands some of the concerns about the fear of political influence but the framers of the CCJ have gone the extra mile to ensure freedom from political influence. President of the Court, Michael de la Bastide felt compelled to emphasize this in order to relieve the doubts of those who still hold to that view. But even then, what do we say of the American Supreme Court, in a country that is regarded as a beacon of democracy? Who appoints its judges and to what extent can it be said to be political?

Independence was the beginning of a journey and Saturday’s inauguration is the continuation of that journey. I say, continuation, because only two countries have so far signed up to the full jurisdictions of the Court, Barbados and Guyana.

St.Vincent as with some of its eastern Caribbean neighbours still has to go through a route that requires support from two-thirds of the members of parliament and two-thirds in a referendum. At least, that is my reading of it, since it is going to involve amending the entrenched clauses of the constitution.

The Caribbean Court of Justice is to function with two jurisdictions, one an original jurisdiction that has to do with the interpretation and application of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas that will establish the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, and the other an appellate one that requires the abolition of the British Privy Council as our final court of appeal.

The editorial of the Sunday edition of the Barbados Nation argues; “The dream of greater regional social and economic progress cannot be realised outside a judicial framework. If only as a matter of pride, Caribbean people would not want to continue in perpetuity clinging to the coattails of a foreign legal establishment several thousand miles away, irrespective of how well it served us in the past.”

There seems to be some consensus on the need for the Court operating in its original jurisdiction although there were some noises in Jamaica suggesting that the settling of trade disputes can be done by a tribunal.

With only two countries subscribing to the full powers of the Court and with no idea as to when the others will complete the necessary process one wonders about the work of the Court. I am assuming that in the early years the cases related to the CSME that will be brought to the Court will be small. This then raises the issue of the workload of the Judges.

While on this matter it must be a feeling of pride to Vincentians to see one of its sons, still a youngster elevated to the Court and apparently receiving loud applause when he was sworn in on Saturday. This must say something about the country and about the Caribbean institutions that nurtured him.

West Indians often underestimate their strengths and standing in the world. When compared with other post-colonial societies we can stand with pride and hold our heads high. The region has produced three Nobel Laureates, an outstanding achievement given our population and size. Our education system has produced some of the brightest and best, so we have the human resources to handle our own destiny. I agree fully with the Prime Minister of St. Lucia when he stated, “…the CCJ is not a leap into the darkness. It is a leap of enlightenment. This region has the most sturdy credentials for creating a regional court of appeal that can respond and respond with finality, to the most rigorous standards of the rule of law.”

The establishment of the CCJ is indeed a most historic occasion as we move further toward the dismantling of the old colonial state. How can we be really independent if we hold on to institutions that are not shaped by and do not reflect our culture and aspirations?

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