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Extend emergency with care, diligence
Friday’s debate about the planned extension of the state of emergency was a largely ceremonial matter. The Government needs only a simple majority to pursue its actions in the interest of national security and its presence in Parliament already guarantees that. Despite that reality, or rather, precisely because of it, the nation deserved a more focused and detailed debate of the issues surrounding the implementation of the state of emergency and the rationale for its extension.
Regrettably, statistics were bent to political advantage during the debate and race matters were used like missiles by both sides of the floor as justification for and arguments against the extension. Both the Government and the opposition can reference extensive and detailed information about criminal activity in Trinidad and Tobago, but to have that database of facts reduced to an accounting of race is a kind of travesty given the gravity of the crime situation that occasioned the state of emergency.
More important than identifying who defined geographic regions in Trinidad and Tobago as crime hot spots is the critical discussion about what makes these areas so attractive to criminals, what social and environmental pressures and encouragements make them such ready breeding grounds for illegal activity and most crucially, what initiatives might the opportunity of the emergency offer for making a difference in these red shaded areas of the country, identified as mission critical. The extension of the emergency seemed a foregone conclusion to even casual observers when two busts at the Hyatt Hotel and One Woodbrook Place suggested that criminal leadership might well have chosen to take the security lockdown as an opportunity for a vacation and some liberal spending of ill-gotten gains.
Moving the security pressure from a matter of weeks to months will probably have a quite different impact on illegal activity and prove to be a greater challenge to business as usual for criminals. That’s likely to lead to more opportunities for intelligence gathering and opportunities for security forces resulting in more breakthroughs. That’s likely to be the common sense rationale for the extension of the emergency and the Government’s contributions to the debate would have been more robust if there had been less political grandstanding and more sensible reasons for an extended abridgement of the constitution had been advanced.
In the face of the almost inevitable extension, the Opposition has an overwhelming responsibility to create a shadow Ministry of National Security charged with not just reviewing the Government’s activities and announcements during this critical time, but with liaising at a senior level with the Minister Sandy, offering its own suggestions and perspectives on optimising the outcomes of an extended state of emergency. In attempting to curtail the capacity of criminals to conduct their business in relative comfort, the Government must also be aware that it is creating even greater challenges to legitimate businesses who will not attempt to defy either the spirit or the details of the restrictions imposed by the curfew and the emergency.
The real challenges of balancing effective action on crime and allowing honest businesses to carry on their trade must be a critical focus of the planning for an extended state of emergency. At stake are the livelihoods of citizens, many of whom have already been hard hit by the first weeks of the state of emergency, the profitability of marginal businesses and the national economy, which can ill-afford the lost productivity and output that have been an inevitable casualty of the restrictions of the last two weeks. No one expects the Government to reveal their security strategies, but there must be clearer identification of the specific goals of an extended state of emergency and more clarity about the daily outcomes of police action.
The Minister of National Security must also be clear that he now owns the problems and issues that arise from the successes and failures of this extra-constitutional initiative and that while civil rights have been suspended, his officers must be urged to hold to the highest standards of behaviour in all their public engagements. The Government must be crystal clear that its governance during this unusual time will be measured both by their success in disrupting the institutions of crime and by their capacity to execute their anti-crime initiatives with no further abridgement of citizens’ constitutional and human rights.
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