The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) went on trial today and the verdict is in.
An incredible, outrageous NO vote by voters in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada. The turned their backs on this pioneer institution of Caribbean jurisprudence as their highest court, opting instead to remain at the mercy of law lords in the land of their former colonial master.
In both cases, a two-thirds majority of the total number of ballots cast was required to make the switch to the CCJ, which also functions as an international tribunal interpreting the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which governs the 15-Member Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
In Antigua, of the total 17,743 votes cast, 8,509 or 47.96 per cent said ‘yes’, and 9,234 or 52.04 per cent said no.
Grenada’s Supervisor of Elections, Alex Phillip, said that 22,098 or 28 per cent of registered voters participated in the referendum. Of that number, 9,846 or 45.05 per cent approved the move while 12, 133 or 54.39 per cent rejected the change. The election official counted 119 rejected ballots.
For Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell, who made a political gamble last night in warning that he would not ask Grenadians to vote on the CCJ a third time, the disappointment was clear.
“History will also record who took what position when something absolutely crucial to the life of the people of the country was in fact initiated and who did what.
“I am very clear in my conscience that I did the right thing that I firmly believe the CCJ is in fact the court that should be dealing with our final judicial system in the region and I have no doubt that history will prove me right,” he said.
Up to the time of publication, there was no immediate reaction from the Antiguan leader, Gaston Browne, but similar disappointment is expected.
Earlier in the day, as he cast his ballot, he called the plebscite a “great opportunity” for the country.
The rejection is a profound, teachable moment for our archipelago of small island developing states.
That the people of these two Eastern Caribbean member states were unable to drown out the senseless noise and unfounded criticisms levelled by some quarters, particularly Opposition forces – once supporters of the CCJ – is nothing short of disturbing.
We dare say the efforts by both Gaston Browne and Keith Mitchell to shake off the last vestiges of British colonialism were the right ones for modern, progressive sovereign Caribbean states.
And the justification is all there. In fact, rather than a referendum on whether countries should adopt the CCJ as a final court, we should be evaluating its performance and value to our region.
The fact is, though a victim of ridiculous partisan political politics and insularity, the CCJ has delivered. Its judgments on the 79 cases it has heard to date have been deemed as landmark from distinguished legal luminaries far and beyond.
Hardly can one claim political interference when the data shows that Governments have lost 41 of the 79 cases in which they were involved.
Caribbean people have been benefitting from easier to access to justice. In the landmark 2013 Shanique Myrie case – the court was able to sit both in Kingston and Bridgetown. An ordinary citizen of a CARICOM nation was able to seek and obtain swift justice. No QCs on expensive hotel stays in swanky Kensington while appearing before the grey eminences of London.
The financing of the CCJ, once a point of contention, has been settled for the last two decades with the seamless function of its trust fund, and the appointment of judges has remained out of the hands of the regional political directorate. Hardly an excuse is left. Trump this.
For the people of Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, this is a lost opportunity. For, to borrow from the Right Excellent Errol Barrow’s promise 52 years ago this month, they may well find themselves loitering on colonial premises after closing time.
Sovereign nations that have built their own governments and parliaments and have implemented local court systems and signed on to the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal yet hang on to the coat tails of the Privy Council in London; the irony could not be starker.
This is the behaviour of a grown adult who is finding all kinds of excuses not to leave his mother’s house, a source of shame if not pity that the region is still paralyzed by parochial self-doubt.
Let us be reminded of the September 2009 comments made by Britain’s then top judge Lord Nicholas Phillips who complained that the law lords on the Privy Council were spending a “disproportionate’ amount of time on cases from former colonies, mostly in the Caribbean.
Lord Phillips, told the UK’s Financial Times newspaper that “in an ideal world”, Commonwealth countries, including those in the Caribbean, should stop using the Privy Council and set up their own final court of appeal instead.
That was nine years ago; yet Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda will loiter, having made decisions which we fear will set our beloved Caribbean neighbours and our great regional experiment backwards.