Tag Archives: Politics

Grenada leads the way by abolishing criminal libel – We all should follow suit

Alicia Nicholls 

The big legal news rippling across the Caribbean Sea this week is the revelation that the Tillman Thomas government in Grenada has made history by being the first Commonwealth Caribbean territory to abolish criminal defamation and thus bring its libel laws, at least on this front, in conformity with the exigencies of a twenty-first century democracy.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Grenada’s Criminal Code (Amendment) Act of 2012 abolished sections 252 and 253 of the Grenada Criminal Code which imposed criminal sanctions for libel. The repeal was a big victory for the International Press Institute which has been ardently campaigning for the abolition of criminal defamation in all Commonwealth Caribbean States, advocating instead the reliance on civil actions exclusively. Seditious libel however still remains on the books as a criminal offence under s 357 of the Criminal Code. For a full background on the work of the IPI on this front, see here.

Freedom of the press is held to be one of the central tenets of a functioning liberal democracy. The rationale behind press freedom is that a robust and independent press keeps public officials in check by informing the populace of their actions, calling them out on their shortcomings, while also providing information which would allow the public to make informed decisions in their own interest. However, the existence of antiquated defamation laws on the statute books of Commonwealth Caribbean countries has led many to criticize these vestiges of the colonial era as fetters on the efficacy of the fourth estate in scrutinizing our public officials, and thereby serving as a barrier to true democratic governance.

The zeal with which Commonwealth Caribbean territories have tended to cling to our pre-independence laws has been heavily criticized, but in the case of our libel laws, the situation becomes even more perplexing. While it is accepted that a delicate balance must be maintained between the much deserved need to protect a person’s reputation and the equally deserved right of the public to access information, the harshness of Commonwealth Caribbean countries’ libel laws can be contrasted with the iniquitously broad freedom of expression privileges granted to parliamentarians on the floor of parliament under the convention of parliamentary privilege.  Is the freedom of speech of parliamentarians therefore more valuable than that of those whose role is to serve as the watch dogs of our post-independence democracies?

Defamation legislation throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean ranges in vintage from semi-modern to archaic acts dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.  With sluggish statutory change, if any, it has been up to the common law to adapt the laws of defamation to the needs of modern twenty-first century democracies. The defence of qualified privilege is one which has not generally found much success in case law before the landmark House of Lords decision in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Limited [2001] which recognized the duty of the press to communicate to the world at large and also recognised a public interest defence which commentators have called the “Reynolds defence”. In Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead further clarified the Reynolds defence by giving some guidance on the factors to be taken into consideration when deciding whether the defence of qualified privilege applies.

Criminal libel prosecutions remain alive and well in the Caribbean, although their frequency varies according to territory. In the recent Grenadian case of George Worme and Grenada Today v Commissioner of Police of Grenada (2004) which had been referred to the Privy Council, Lord Rodger importantly rejected submissions by counsel that then section 258 was too narrowly drafted to allow for the raising of the Reynolds defence. However, the court also regrettably held that criminal libel  was “a justifiable part of the law of the democratic society in Grenada”. Rulings such as this reinforce the cloud of fear hanging over regional journalists in execution of their ‘watch dog’ function.

Penalties for criminal libel vary across the region. Before its abolition, section 252 of the Grenada Civil Code provided that the penalty of conviction for negligent libel was imprisonment for six months, while two year imprisonment existed in the case of intentional libel. The Barbados Defamation Act (Cap 199) of 1997, one of the more ‘modern’ acts,  is a bit more lenient at Article 34(3) as it gives the Court the discretion to impose a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both.Despite the talks and promises of libel reform decades after many of us have achieved independence, our journalists still have the risk of criminal prosecution as an ‘occupational hazard’ of their profession. It is little wonder therefore that self censorship by media houses is endemic in several Commonwealth Caribbean states, including Barbados. It is a practice which, though done to shield these entities from prosecution, is contrary to the public interest.

Moreover, stringent libel laws have tended to make the constitutional guarantee of right to access to information virtually nugatory, particularly where freedom of information acts do not exist. In Barbados, the proposed Freedom of Information Act which was supposed to buttress the constitutional guarantee of right to access to information under section 20 of the Constitution of Barbados by, inter alia, providing greater public access to information held by government bodies, has not yet been passed and neither have the proposed defamation reforms. On the contrary, the UK, from whom our defamation laws were inherited, abolished criminal libel and sedition per section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and is currently in the process of passing a new Defamation Act (currently HL Bill 41) which is aimed at modernizing that country’s defamation laws.

In countries which pride ourselves as democratic states, it is high time that we purge our statute books of these archaic and anti-democratic laws. As seen in Grenada, this is not a move most politicians would make without strong lobbying by local, regional and international civil society.  Despite this, Grenada’s big step towards the complete removal of criminal defamation should be applauded and one can only hope that other post-independence Commonwealth territories, including Barbados, would follow suit in the interest of greater democracy.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at@LicyLaw.


Small dots but big footprints: Caribbean Countries and International Organisations

Alicia Nicholls

Another daughter of the soil has been called to serve on one of the world’s most eminent and most important intergovernmental organisations. This time it is Barbados’ Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Joy St. John who has been appointed Chairwoman of the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dr. Joy St. John, a medical doctor, joins a growing list of Barbadian and CARICOM nationals who have been called to serve in the highest echelons of some of the world’s most prestigious international bodies. Casting our minds a bit back in time, one would recall another Barbadian woman who made a notable contribution to public health issues at the international level. Barbados’ former Governor-General, Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, served as a nursing advisor to the WHO and the Pan-American Health Organisation for more than a decade. Though a midwife and nurse, Dame Nita had also served as President of the International Council on Adult Education in 1975 and 1986.

Outside of the health arena and more contemporarily, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) cabinet minister and well-esteemed environmental lawyer and negotiator, was appointed as a United Nations Assistant Secretary General. In 2010 she was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as Executive Coordinator of the UNCSD Rio +20 Conference. In the field of trade in intellectual property, Mr. Trevor Clarke is the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)’s Assistant Director General for the Culture and Creative Industries Sector. Further in the area of culture, Alissandra Cummins, the Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, is currently the Chairperson of the Executive Board of UNESCO  (2011-2013) and had also made history as being the first Caribbean and female president of the International Council of Museums between 2004-2010.

We in the Caribbean often regard ourselves as small states. Indeed, by our geographic, demographic and economic size, we are. However, our contribution in international organisations, particularly on issues of greatest concern to us as small states,  should serve to us as a reminder that while we may appear as no more than little dots on a map, our footprint in these organisations often belies our size.  One would recall that it was Trinidad & Tobago under the leadership of then Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson which was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Again in the field of law, eminent Jamaican law professor and former principal of the Norman Manley Law School, Dr. Stephen Vasciannie, served on the prestigious UN Law Commission whose mandate is the codification and progressive development of international law.

There are many others that can be listed but I have made my point. The ability of Caribbean people to assume and function effectively in these key positions and the faith that other nations have put in the representation of our nationals stand as testament and vindication of the solid investment that our governments have tended to put in developing our greatest resource, that is, our people.

I wish Dr. St. John all the best in her new position as she continues to fly our Barbadian and CARICOM flags high.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw.

Is the World Bank finally committed to an open and merit-based selection process? Only time will tell…

Alicia Nicholls

The current president of the Washington DC-based World Bank, Robert Zoellick, a former executive with Goldman Sachs, will be stepping down from the post in June of this year.  Per a tacit agreement between the US and European countries, all eleven presidents of the World Bank since the Bank’s founding in 1944 have been American. Concomitantly, a European has always headed its sister institution the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This present World Bank selection cycle has seen an unprecedented challenge to US monopoly of the World Bank’s leadership to date. The US’ nominee, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, faces stiff competition from two nominees from the global South, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria and the Brazil-nominated Mr. Jose Antonio Ocampo from Colombia.  Coming on the heels of the IMF’s managing director selection process last year when Europe retained its perennial grip on that institution’s leadership position, the question on everyone’s mind is whether this World Bank selection cycle will see a continuation of the status quo or whether either candidate from the global South will stand a decent chance of assuming the reins of this important international financial institution (IFI).

The contemporary geopolitical and economic configuration of the world is much different from that which existed in the immediate post-World War II era in which the Bretton Woods institutions were born. The US, while still the world’s largest economy by GDP, now shares the world stage with several increasingly important poles of growth, notably emerging economies which have been the main engines of economic recovery. Yet the World Bank’s governance structure does not reflect this multipolar reality. Tired of the iniquitous status quo, the BRICS have been pushing for reform of the Bretton Woods institutions to reflect present-day economic realities and to allow developing countries a greater say in the international financial and economic system. While the BRICS have been successful in increasing their voting power in the World Bank, securing the top post has been a different story. Will this time be different?

Brazil has nominated former Colombian Minister of Finance, Jose Antonio Ocampo, a US-trained economist who is currently a Professor at the Ivy-League Columbia University in New York City. In its communiqué of March 26th, the African Union  endorsed the candidacy of renowned Nigerian economist, diplomat and former government minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Perhaps in an attempt to diffuse the calls for change, the Obama administration shied away from the usual choices of bank executives and bureaucrats and instead nominated the Korean-born US national Dr. Jim Yong Kim.  A medical doctor, Dr. Kim is the President of the prestigious Dartmouth College and is well-known for his work in fighting tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS throughout the developing world.

It should be noted that all three candidates being considered are highly educated and tremendously qualified in their respective fields. All three were born in developing countries and educated at Ivy League universities in the US. That being said, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s impeccable qualifications and her vast experience should make her rise to the top of the pack.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is an internationally respected economist with a wealth of expertise in development issues at both the national and global levels.  She has spent more than twenty years at the World Bank until ascending to the post of Managing Director in 2007. She has also served twice as Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs in her home country of Nigeria. It is therefore no surprise that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was named as one of the 100 most powerful women by Forbes Magazine.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the World Bank’s new president would be a powerful symbol for gender rights. It would be the first time a woman, far less a woman from the global South, would be at the helm of this powerful but traditionally male-dominated global financial institution. A wife and mother of four, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has been outspoken on gender equality and on the macroeconomic and social benefits of providing finance to women and of encouraging women entrepreneurship. In this regard, it is hoped that she would push for more gender-sensitive bank lending programmes.

Perhaps, even more critically, it would be the first time a person from a developing country and an African nation, will be at the head of this institution. The World Bank is an important lender to developing countries and has the twin goals of reducing poverty and promoting development. Despite some of its good work, the World Bank, like its twin sister the IMF, has not always had the best reputation in the developing world, including right here in the Caribbean. During the 1990s, its structural adjustment programmes under the so-called Washington Consensus foisted austere market reforms and other neo-liberal policies on cash-strapped countries as conditionalities for loans. These policies included deregulation, privatization, cuts in Government expenditure (especially in social welfare) and liberalization of capital markets, which if introduced too quickly and/or without the supporting institutional framework could lead and have led to devastating consequences in the countries concerned and have had a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of women and the poor. For a case in point, just watch the documentary Life and Debt for a vivid look at Jamaica’s experience with IMF-World Bank sponsored structural adjustment. Under a Okonjo-Iweala presidency, it would be hoped that there will be the genesis of a new era in the Bank’s dealings with the South, marked by less focus on free market ideology and a greater sensitivity towards the impact of policies on vulnerable groups in society such as women and the poor.

However, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy faces two big hurdles. Chief among them is the Bank’s ‘democratic deficit’. It is the Bank’s 25-member Board of Executive directors which will ultimately decide the successful candidate.  As the largest economy among the 187 countries in the World Bank, the US has the majority of votes. By choosing a nominee, the US has shown that it will not go against its own strategic interests by supporting a non-American for such a key post.  Moreover, European countries, which hold the second largest block of votes, are unlikely to support a non-US candidate, especially given the US’ support for their IMF nominee last year. Additionally, Japan has already signalled its intention to support the US nominee.

The only alternative would be for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to garner unanimous developing country support. Therein lies the second problem.  The BRICS have been reticent about throwing their support behind a single nominee from the South and have so far not endorsed any of the three candidates. Last year the BRICS missed their opportunity to block the ascension of yet another European to the post of IMF managing director by their inability to unanimously agree on an alternative candidate, even though there were well-qualified non-European candidates.

This crop of candidates will make unanimous developing country support behind a single candidate even more elusive. The Brazil-nominated Mr. Ocampo will probably enjoy significant support from Latin American countries. But as the US nominee, Dr. Kim is the clear front-runner for the job. Moreover, by choosing an Asian-American, a non-banker and a public health professional,  the US has picked a candidate who will undoubtedly garner support from many developing countries, including some Asian countries which have criticised the US’ monopoly of the World Bank leadership position. Despite being the best candidate, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will have a tough, and some say, futile battle for the World Bank presidency.

As the countries which rely the most on IFIs and arguably stand the most to lose from any turmoil in the international financial system, developing countries need to have a greater say in these global financial institutions. Is the World Bank truly committed to an open and merit-based process irrespective of nationality? Only time will tell.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw.

Is ALBA a threat to CARICOM integration?

Alicia Nicholls

CARICOM countries could soon make up the majority of member states in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). At the bloc’s 11th Summit last month in Caracas, both Suriname and St. Lucia  formally expressed their intention to become members of the eight-member group. They would join four other CARICOM countries which are already ALBA member states: Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and more recently, Haiti.

The wave of interest in ALBA, a regional bloc which like CARICOM envisions deep integration between its members, comes against a backdrop of stagnation and crisis in the CARICOM integration process.  While ALBA leaders at their 11th Summit agreed to move full speed ahead to deepen their integration with the creation of a single monetary union – ECOALBA, CARICOM Heads of Governments caught most people by surprise last year when they inexplicably put the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) on ‘pause’ during their retreat in Guyana. It was a decision for which Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves recently expressed regret. In a candid letter sent to the Secretary General of CARICOM which effused both lament and frustration at the current ‘standstill’ in CARICOM, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves made mention of the augmented interest by CARICOM countries in courting ALBA. He predicted that more CARICOM countries were likely to follow suit and rhetorically asked what would be the implications of this for CARICOM.

ALBA is one of the most well-known South-South trade initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, not just because it was the brain child of the outspoken and no-nonsense President of Venezuela, Mr. Hugo Chavez, but because it potentially represents a more equitable alternative to the traditional neoliberal model of regionalism. It was launched by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 originally as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and as an alternative to the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas which had been pushed by the United States. Drawing inspiration from the political thought of freedom fighters Jose Marti and Simon Bolivar, ALBA’s stated aim is to be a political, economic and social alliance which seeks to protect the independence, sovereignty, self-determination and identity of its Member States, and to protect the interests of the peoples of the South from political and economic domination.

If the question of ALBA’s threat to the CARICOM integration process is considered purely on the compatibility of ALBA CARICOM countries’ obligations, the flexibility which ALBA gives its members in terms of the initiatives which they can choose to be a part of means that ALBA CARICOM countries are free to refrain from initiatives which could conflict with their CARICOM and OECS obligations.  In the declaration of accession signed by St Vincent and the Grenadines for example, the Gonsalves Government made clear that as a regional movement ALBA does not alter but complements its obligations in other regional movements such as the OECS and CARICOM.  Thus, St Vincent and the Grenadines, like the other OECS members of ALBA, has not introduced the new regional trading currency – the sucre in light of its membership in the OECS’ monetary union.

A more immediate domain for conflict between ALBA and CARICOM obligations appears to be in the area of foreign policy. Foreign policy coordination is one of the stated objectives of CARICOM per the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and one of the pillars of functional cooperation.  While ALBA Members are given flexibility in foreign policy, ALBA as a group has been outspoken on several current conflicts, including throwing support in a recent declaration solidly behind Argentina in the recently escalating Falkland Islands dispute between that country and the United Kingdom.  The decision was made to join several other Latin American countries, including Argentina, to prevent Falkland-flagged ships from docking at their ports.  Although the ALBA CARICOM countries have not all come out and said whether their individual stance was in consonance with that of ALBA’s, one would not be unreasonable by taking their silence as agreement with the ALBA position. This position however is diametrically opposed to that taken by the non-ALBA members of CARICOM which have supported the Falkland Islands’ right to self-determination, that is, their right to remain British. Dr. Gonsalves’ stance on the issue caused some controversy in his country. However, on a larger scale, such divergence in policy position could be evidence of the potential threat of further fragmentation in the region’s foreign policy coherence.

Politics aside, there is no doubt that the main attraction of ALBA to those CARICOM countries which have acceded so far  is the developmental support provided by its founding countries Venezuela and Cuba. Havana has long been a development partner of many countries in the region. Through bilateral cooperation agreements signed between the Cuban government and the governments of the region, the people of the wider Caribbean have benefited from free eye care in Cuban hospitals under Operation Miracle, scholarships to study medicine at Cuban universities and free health care by Cuban doctors.  Haiti has also benefited from food and literacy programmes.

Under the Chavez administration, Venezuela has also taken a more active developmental role in the region. Since the establishment of the PetroCaribe Initiative in 2005, some 17 Caribbean countries, most of which are non-ALBA members, have benefitted from this arrangement which allows them to purchase oil on preferential terms of payment. Only part of the cost is paid up front and part can also be paid through the provision of agricultural goods. The remainder is repaid over a 25 year period at a 1% interest rate. The PetroCaribe deal has not been immune to criticism, and both Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago have not joined. Though such an arrangement helps in the short term to conserve much needed foreign exchange, it means that those countries which take oil on these terms are indebted to Venezuela in the longer term. Moreover, while PetroCaribe aims to promote energy security through the provision of “cheap” oil, Venezuelan fuel exports under the Agreement have decreased over time due to less available supply. Another criticism raised is that the ‘cheap oil’ provided under PetroCaribe increases the region’s dependence on the importation of fossil fuels. This latter argument is less persuasive given the increasing interest shown by CARICOM countries in renewable energy generation, through for instance geothermal, solar and wind energy.

The financial support offered by ALBA is  highly attractive to debt-ridden CARICOM countries faced with an uncertain global economic and financial climate. Loans are given at favourable terms and without most of the usual conditionalities insisted on by traditional donors. Through its loan funds, ALBA has provided funding for projects, including infrastructure, housing and agriculture projects in Dominica for example. St Vincent and the Grenadines also received a loan from the ALBA Bank for the construction of a new international airport.

The availability of credit under ALBA’s several funds can be contrasted with the limited capitalization of the CARICOM Development Fund. The CDF is provided for under Article 158 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas as a fund to provide financial and technical assistance to disadvantaged countries, regions and sections within the grouping. The limited capitalization of the CDF, plus problems with the Petroleum Facility and the perceived lack of sensibility to the OECS countries’ unique vulnerabilities, were some of the many shortfalls of CARICOM about which Dr. Gonsalves complained in his previously mentioned letter. Frustrations like these over ill-functioning regional aid mechanisms plus the more readily available economic aid under ALBA, could lead to more CARICOM countries turning their attention to ALBA.

One area in which CARICOM arguably maintains an upper-hand over ALBA is in trade. With a population of 70 million people, ALBA represents a larger market for regional goods than does CARICOM. That being said though, the export capabilities of the ALBA CARICOM remain too weak to effectively take advantage of this.  It is true that over the period 1999-2008, it is reported that average yearly trade between Venezuela and Antigua & Barbuda was USD 6.5 million, between Venezuela and Dominica, USD 179 million and between Venezuela and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 4.5 million dollars. However, given that petroleum trade accounts for most bilateral trade between Venezuela and ALBA CARICOM countries, the balance of trade is skewed in Venezuela’s favour.  While trade asymmetries do exist within CARICOM as well, the regime created by the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas envisions the freedom of movement of goods, services, people (skilled) and capital within the Community, the right of Community nationals to establish businesses in other territories, as well as a competition commission which is charged with ensuring the rules of the market are respected.  ALBA has not as yet reached this level of integration. That being said, however, the large gulf between what the Revised Treaty provides for and what operates in practice in CARICOM has led to frustration that the expected benefits are not being seen.  Moreover, ALBA does intend to become an economic union, something which continues to elude CARICOM.

Although there is an undisputed role for ALBA as a development aid and trade partner for our countries, their main integration focus should be on deepening CARICOM integration. CARICOM is more than a trade group. It was founded on the vision of our regional founding fathers who believed that strength comes not through parochialism but through the political, economic and social unification of a people already united through a common history and a shared culture and values. Regardless of its many shortcomings, CARICOM, its organs and associated bodies, have played a tremendous role in the region for the past nearly forty years and can play an even greater role once a serious attempt is made at reform by our Heads of Government.

Moreover, although Venezuela is a useful ally for countries in the region by virtue of its stronger bargaining power in the international community, CARICOM’s interests as small states and those of Latin American countries, including Venezuela’s are not always complementary as seen in the Banana Wars in the WTO. It should also not be forgotten that Venezuela continues to have border disputes with two CARICOM States (Guyana and Dominica) which have still not been resolved and for which Venezuela has not changed its position.  A further caveat to bear in mind is that given the strong ideological divide in Venezuelan politics, there is no guarantee that whichever president eventually succeeds President Chavez would be leftist in political orientation or that he or she would be as sympathetic as his or her predecessor to the region’s concerns, or be committed to continuing ALBA and its component programs. Therefore, there is some concern about ALBA’s survivability in a post-Chavez era.

The real threat to CARICOM is not ALBA though, but CARICOM itself.  Impatience with the slow process of integration and its associated benefits at the CARICOM level has had as its natural corollary a desire to explore more seemingly attractive alternatives. It is not surprising therefore that the poorer countries in the region, and some of the larger countries like Suriname as well, have set their compass to ALBA for the superior economic security it provides and its seemingly better alignment with their interests.  Unless our Heads of Government act seriously on their commitment made at the last inter-sessional meeting to formulate a plan of action designed to reform CARICOM to make it more effective, there could be a day when all of our countries eventually turn their backs completely on CARICOM in favour of other blocs which they believe have both the ability and will to better cater to their peoples’ interests and needs. That would be a sad day.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw.

What CARICOM needs: A little less conversation, a little more action please!

Alicia Nicholls

This catchy line from Elvis Presley’s song from the late 60s “A little less conversation” immediately came to mind as I read the flurry of news reports, commentary and analyses swirling around in the regional media for the past two weeks about the current state of crisis of CARICOM. The opinions expressed therein ranged from concern over CARICOM’s ailing health to fears that it had flat-lined. All acknowledge that our main regional body is in deep trouble.

The backdrop to this latest death scare was yet another report highlighting the weaknesses of CARICOM and the urgent need for reform. This independent consultants’ report, commissioned by the CARICOM Secretariat back in July 2010 and thankfully made available online recently, predicted that, ceteris paribus, CARICOM could be in the mortuary by 2017. It comes on the heels of a frank letter sent by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines to CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque, and copied to the other Heads of Government, expressing grave concern about the current state of CARICOM.

This hurricane of bad news has quickly elicited a tsunami of denials and pledges of commitment to CARICOM from our leaders across the region. For example, our Prime Minister here in Barbados while acknowledging the challenges facing the region and the regional integration process, vehemently denied that any funeral for CARICOM needed to be planned any time soon. The response from regional leaders, though predictable, is encouraging, given that for the past few years many keen onlookers have been left to wonder about whether our leaders’ commitment to the regional process goes beyond mere lip service.

Truth be told, it has long been common knowledge that CARICOM has stagnated and faces serious challenges to its survival. The problems identified by the CARICOM Secretariat report and by Prime Minister Gonsalves in his letter are not new. Yet, despite a plethora of studies and recommendations on the same, successive CARICOM heads of government have been unable or unwilling to rectify them. One of the main problems has always been CARICOM’s weak governance structure which per the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas concentrates policy-making authority in the hands of the Conference of Heads of Government made up of the heads of government of the fifteen member countries. On the contrary, the Secretariat, set up as the body’s principal administrative organ and headed by the Secretary-General, has become overburdened with too many tasks, while having virtually no executive power. Moreover, the lack of a supranational structure means that there is a long interlude between when decisions are taken by the Heads of Government and their implementation, if they are ever implemented, at the national level. For this reason, many of the decisions taken by the Heads of Government remain for far too long at the paper and ink stage. It is this ‘implementation deficit’ which has been continually blamed for the slow process of integration and had been called the ‘Achilles heel of CARICOM’ by the West Indian Commission “Time for Action” Report published some two decades ago.

The real underlying problem of course is the lack of political will on the part of our leaders to “cede” any national autonomy to a regional body. This is despite the recommendation made in countless CARICOM-commissioned studies that what CARICOM needs is a stronger regional governance framework which would facilitate and expedite the policy implementation process. The jealous guarding of national autonomy on the part of our governments is also evidenced by some countries’ lukewarm support for key regional institutions. As yet only three countries (Barbados, Guyana and Belize) have signed on to the Caribbean Court of Justice’s appellate jurisdiction, although the recently elected Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Hon Portia Simpson-Miller has indicated her country’s willingness to join. However, the other countries in the region remain hesitant about switching to a Caribbean-based court, while they paradoxically cling fiercely to a vestige of colonialism, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The current economic and financial crisis has also increasingly caused our leaders to direct their attention inward towards national concerns, leaving many of the region’s key institutions of functional cooperation to become little more than ‘talk shops’ due to less and less funding from regional governments.

The truth is that we as a region need CARICOM now more than ever.  Besides our increasing geopolitical irrelevance and our economic marginalisation owing to our small size and loss of trade preferences, the international community is no longer as sympathetic to the economic and political vulnerabilities of non-LDC small states. CARICOM is our shield to an increasingly hostile international climate for small states.  Divided, our individual voices are little more than squeaks on the international stage. But together, our combined voice is less weak. Among other things, CARICOM gives us increased bargaining power in both multilateral and bilateral fora and negotiations and a wider market for regional goods, services and capital. Moreover, through functional cooperation, pooling our limited resources and our collective genius, we can and have achieved objectives which we would have been ill-equipped or completely unable to achieve as individual countries.

Is this latest report the wake-up call we need as a region? After all, the cynical among us would note that there have been endless studies, reports and other publications before sounding the alarm over the standstill in regional integration and bemoaning the lack of commitment of our governments. Despite this history of ‘a lot of conversation and little action’, I, perhaps naively, choose to be optimistic that this time we, the citzens of our region, will not be treated to more of the same old promises by our leaders.

The CARICOM Secretariat report was circulated to the Heads of Government before the 23rd Inter-Sessional Meeting on March 8-9, of the Heads of Government in Suriname. According to the communiqué released at the end of the meeting, the Heads of Government considered in-depth the report’s recommendations. Under the area of CARICOM-reform,  they agreed that the Secretary General would begin the process of restructuring the currently overburdened Secretariat with the help of a change facilitator. They also agreed that the Bureau of the Conference would work with an internal group from the Secretariat to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation. Although many of us expected to see more urgent action, it should be recognised that the current financial and economic situation of many of our countries does limit how much resources can be earmarked by our cash-strapped countries to comprehensive CARICOM-reform at this time. However, these two proposed reforms represent a step hopefully in the right direction and it is hoped that at their next meeting our leaders would, following consultations with civil society, have a more concrete plan of action for reform.

What we need is a little less conversation and more action by our leaders. From a structural point of view, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas needs amending to provide a governance structure which would permit CARICOM to function effectively and efficiently and do the tasks for which it was established. It should also provide for and mandate greater participation by the wider society in the regional governance process. Further, it is my hope that among the areas for action would be increased regional funding and political support for regional institutions of functional cooperation. In this vein, all CARICOM countries should accept the CCJ as their final court of appeal and not just because it is a regional court. The CCJ has produced very enlightened jurisprudence so far in both its original and appellate jurisdictions and demonstrates that we as a people should have faith in the wisdom, capability and impartiality of our  judges. With regard to the CARICOM Single Market & Economy (CSME) which Caribbean leaders inexplicably placed on ‘pause’ at their retreat in Guyana last year, a greater commitment is needed by regional governments to remove unduly restrictive barriers to trade between our countries and foster a more vibrant regional market where people, goods, services and capital flow more easily. Part of this would require more concrete steps to deal with the prohibitively high cost of regional transportation.  However, all the hard work cannot be left to our leaders. If there is one thing that I have come to appreciate as a student in the beautifully diverse Faculty of Law at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, is that we as a people in the region have to put our false nationalism and stereotypes of each other aside, and recognize that as diverse as we are, we are still one Caribbean people.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw

The Rt. Ex. Errol Barrow: Barbadian Statesman, Caribbean Visionary

Alicia Nicholls

January 21st of each year is the day that Barbadians celebrate Errol Barrow Day. Our first prime minister, the late Rt. Ex. Errol Walton Barrow is one of our ten national heroes and our beloved ‘Father of Independence’.  His stately portrait graces our fifty dollar bill, while a majestic bronze statue poised in his likeness commands the attention of those walking through Independence Square in Bridgetown.  On this Errol Barrow Day, I see it fitting to discuss the legacy of Mr. Barrow both in terms of his contribution to Barbados and to the Caribbean region.

It could be said that one testament of a politician’s greatness is when he or she is able to draw praise from both sides of the political aisle. Politicians and ordinary Barbadians, whether BLP or DLP, frequently speak of Mr. Barrow and his contribution to our country with the deep reverence one usually reserves for religious figures. Respect for Mr. Barrow goes far beyond these shores. In a tribute to Mr. Barrow included in the book “Speeches of Errol Barrow” edited by Yussuff Haniff, the Rt. Hon. Michael Manley, former Prime Minister of Jamaica, described Mr. Barrow poignantly as follows “[t]hat Errol Barrow was a deep, passionate and unwavering Barbadian is impatient of debate”. But Mr. Barrow was more than a politician.  He was a statesman and a visionary who saw it as the region’s birthright that the Caribbean should have a share in the world.

Mr. Barrow was born on January 21st, 1920 into a politically active family in the northern parish of St. Lucy. His uncle was the great champion of social justice, Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neale. His sister, Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, would later become our first female Governor-General and earn international acclaim as a nurse and champion of public health causes. Mr. Barrow served for seven years in the Royal Air Force in the UK, and pursued studies in Law. Upon his return to Barbados, Mr. Barrow joined the then incumbent Barbados Labour Party and served as a Member of Parliament before leading a group of disenchanted former BLP supporters in 1955 to form the Democratic Labour Party. In 1966, under Mr. Barrow’s leadership, Barbados moved from a mere British colony to an independent nation. Mr. Barrow’s sudden death in office from a heart attack in 1987 brought great outpourings of sorrow across the island for the man who Barbadians fondly remember as the ‘Dipper’.

I was born the year after Mr. Barrow died. But I feel no less passionate about our ‘Father of Independence’  than any other Barbadian who had had the privilege of watching him stroll into the House of Assembly ready to get on with the people’s business.  While I may not have had the privilege of hearing his dry wit or seeing him mingle unassumingly with the regular folk over ‘a bread and two’ and some mauby, I like many subsequent generations of Barbadians have benefited from the myriad of far-sighted economic and social welfare policies he instituted which have provided a pathway for economic and social mobility for the underprivileged and have set the foundation for the high standard of living and prosperity that Barbados today enjoys despite its small size and few natural resources. Thanks to Mr. Barrow, Barbadians benefit from free education from primary to tertiary level, free school meals, the National Insurance Scheme and countless other social safety nets. His foreign policy emphasized principles of regional and international comity but also a strong sense of sovereignty and independence encapsulated in his oft-quoted phrase “friends of all; satellites of none”.

Mr. Barrow enjoyed excellent relations and close friendships with his  regional contemporaries. This is not surprising. Mr. Barrow, along with regional greats like Norman and Michael Manley of Jamaica, Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad & Tobago and Forbes Burnham of Guyana, just to name a few, belonged to a cadre of immediate post-colonial Caribbean leaders who were imbued with a sense of national pride, but also recognized that their countries’ economic survival required development within a regional framework.

Under Barrow, Barbados was one of the founding members of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) in 1965 and its predecessor, the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) in 1973 which he described a la Neil Armstong as “a giant step for us all”. In Mr. Barrow’s speech “Towards a United Caribbean”, a statement made in the House of Assembly on June 19th 1973 on the establishment of CARICOM, Mr. Barrow celebrated the prospects of CARICOM and his vision for what its successful operation could do for Barbados and the region. In discussing the importance of CARICOM for Barbados, Mr. Barrow argued that “the Common Market should provide an opportunity for our industrial and agricultural sectors to leap forward”. He understood the potential of intra-regional trade to help reduce dependence on extra-regional imports and to promote the economic development of the region. It was during this era that several important instruments for the integration movement were either established or the groundwork for their establishment was laid, including the Common External Tariff and the Harmonisation of Fiscal Incentives Agreement.

However, for Mr. Barrow, the necessity of Caribbean integration went beyond the possible economic gains. In extolling the desirability of developing closer relationships among the countries of the anglophone Caribbean, he recognized the “need to protect our small communities from exploitation by undesirable influences”. Indeed, self-reliance was a strong theme underlying his vision for the region. His anti-colonial fervor is encapsulated in another oft-quoted saying of his “no loitering on colonial premises after closing time”. He strongly opposed the US invasion of Grenada while he was in opposition. He took a strong non-aligned stance during the Cold War, arguing that the Caribbean should be a ‘zone of peace’.  Mr. Barrow recognized that political sovereignty was of no moment if economic sovereignty were surrendered to foreign interests. Pushing for less dependence on developed countries, he criticised what he saw as a “mendicant mentality” in the region, arguing forcefully that begging from developed nations would not solve our problems.

While psychology was not one of Mr. Barrow’s professions, his speeches reveal his great thinking on the Caribbean psyche and its impact on the state of the region. Despairing over the slow process of regional integration, he spoke of the need to overcome our imbued sense of inadequacy if we are to progress as a region. He lamented that while Caribbean integration was a ‘fact of daily experience’, it was something that yet was not institutionalised. Indeed some of the reasons for the failings for Caribbean integration which he outlined in his speech ‘Caribbean Integration: The Reality and the Goal’ delivered to the CARICOM Heads of Governments Conference in Guyana in 1986 ring true today. To Barrow, one of the biggest shortcomings of the integration movement was the failure to communicate that the regional integration movement was more than trade. There was the need to better communicate the regional project to the peoples of the region, by emphasising the strong cultural ties which bind us, and educating them on “the meaning and purpose of all regional institutions”.

As a law student, I have sat in lectures and nodded emphatically when I listened to my lecturers speak passionately of the need for ‘Caribbeanising our legal systems’ and the role of the Caribbean Court of Justice in developing our Caribbean jurisprudence. However, back in 1986 Mr. Barrow had also spoken on the issue of Caribbeanising our legal systems in an address to the graduating class of the Sir Hugh Wooding Law School of the University of the West Indies St. Augustine in 1986.  Although confessing that he had initially supported the retention of the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Mr. Barrow acknowledged the tediousness of the appeal process to the JCPC and suggested that the region establish its own Court of Appeal. I am sure if Mr. Barrow were alive now he would be pleased that we now have the Caribbean Court of Justice which was established in 2001 and inaugurated in 2005. Unfortunately, while all CARICOM members have accepted the CCJ in its original jurisdiction, only three members (Barbados, Guyana and Belize) have made it their final court of appeal. Fortunately, the new Portia Simpson-led government in Jamaica has indicated that it will make the CCJ its final court of appeal.

It is impossible in one short blog post to do justice to Mr. Barrow’s legacy. While a proud Barbadian, Mr. Barrow also held a deep attachment to the region, an attachment which regrettably seems lacking in many of our regional leaders today. His speeches on Caribbean integration should, in my humble submission, be required reading for all Barbadian and Caribbean secondary school students doing social studies or history.  Though delivered more than twenty years ago, these teachings of self-reliance, regional self-confidence, unity and independence could be transposed to the current dispensation and still be relevant. Indeed, I believe they are needed now even more than ever.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw

Barbados is not immune to the anti-incumbent fever sweeping the region

Alicia Nicholls

Another one bites the dust!  The Peoples National Party (PNP) has won the Jamaica elections, defeating the incumbent Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) by 41-22 seats. Former Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, has gotten the nod of approval from the Jamaican people and adds another female face to the CARICOM Heads of Government.

There is no doubt that by tomorrow this latest defeat of another one-term incumbent government in the region is going to set the call-in programmes in Barbados ablaze, and everyone with an opinion is going to be speculating on what if anything this latest defeat means for the current Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration. My take on it is that Barbados is not immune to the anti-incumbent fever stirring in the region.

Indeed,these are interesting times in our political landscape. I do not even plan on delving into the letter debacle or so-called attempted coup within the DLP, which to my mind was completely blown out of proportion. Putting that aside, strong parallels have been drawn by many political pundits between the election in St Lucia and what they believe to be similar political conditions in Barbados. In the St. Lucia election, the one-term Stephenson King administration was defeated by the St. Lucia Labour Party led by then former Prime Minister Kenny Anthony. Like Mr. King in St. Lucia after the death of Prime Minister John Compton, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart assumed office following the unfortunate death in office of Prime Minister David Thompson from pancreatic cancer last year. Although the circumstances of Mr. Andrew Holness’ rise to power in Jamaica differs from in St Lucia and Barbados, many will rightly see the Jamaica election as further cause for the DLP to be worried.

It is worth noting that at the time when Mr. Stuart became Prime Minister, some learned pundits argued that Mr. Stuart should have sought his ‘own mandate’ from the people. I disagreed with that argument then and still do for two main reasons. First, as prime  ministers are not directly elected, mandates are given to a party, not to a party leader. The Barbadian electorate gave a mandate to the DLP in 2008, which logically extends to Mr. Stuart whether or not he was  party leader at the time. Second, elections are expensive undertakings and I do not think spending money on another election so soon after the last would have been justified, especially in these harsh economic times.

What the elections in St. Lucia and now Jamaica make clear is that no government is immune to the anti-incumbent fever sweeping through the region. In two-party systems like ours in most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, third parties have little if any chance of winning or making a real impact on election results. Therefore, voters like myself are stuck with and taking a hard look at the limited political options before us. If this Government wants to inoculate itself from the anti-incumbent fever and the one-term plague, it has to listen to the people. It is not just about colourful manifestos and pretty campaign speeches. We want real ideas and a clear and cogent vision and plan of action for fostering development and prosperity for all Barbadians. As far as I am concerned, in these upcoming elections, whenever they are called, both political parties (DLP and BLP) have to come good if either gets my vote.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies. You can contact her by email and  follow her on Twitter at @licylaw.

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