The rule of law

Stabroek News
June 19, 2001

The People's National Congress Reform (PNC/R) has in a press statement pointed out, quite correctly, that President Bharrat Jagdeo has no power to order the transfer of police ranks at Albion police station. Under the Police Act the responsibility for the operations of the force lies solely with the Commissioner of Police. The President has since indicated that he had discussed the matter in advance with the Commissioner. Accepting this, he should not have made the announcement or at least not in the manner in which it was made which suggested that the decision had been made by him.

Presidents cannot transfer policemen from one station to another or for that matter discipline them in any way, they have no legal right to do so. It is not just a matter of protocol or etiquette, the understanding of this legal position is vital to an understanding of how a democracy ought to function. Politicians do not, or should not, control the police, though the Minister of Home Affairs can issue general orders or directions. Many have pointed out that the police were used wantonly as a tool of the government to oppress political opponents under the Burnham government. But that was wrong and unlawful and can set no precedent.

Similarly, as the PNC/R also pointed out, under the Firearms Act only a prescribed officer can issue licences to hold firearms. The President has no legal capacity to do so, or to order the issue of such licences.

One suspects that the President spoke inadvertently at Albion and without the benefit of legal advice from the Attorney General. He was reacting to a difficult, if not critical, situation where people at Albion were fed up being robbed and brutalised with virtually no protection available, and he sought to find a solution.

The President has also taken an initiative with the Water street vendors who approached him to find a place for them to sell their wares. Though this might technically be seen to be within the jurisdiction of City Hall he is impatient with what he perceives to be unnecessary delay and indecision and tries, himself, to get to the core of the matter.

It is not unusual for energetic executives to be frustrated by the checks and balances inherent in a democracy which sometimes impose constraints on action. The President's frustration is no doubt compounded by what he sees as the endless opposition to almost anything he does. He finds it hard to get technocrats to join his cabinet because of the tremendous political hostility that exists and the criticism they fear they will be subjected to if they accept and when he does find someone that person is vilified and declared unfit. All of this must create anger and resentment.

But at the end of the day it is important in our young and besieged democracy that the legal proprieties should be observed and the newly appointed Attorney General will no doubt readily advise what is right and wrong and what can and should not be done. The young President is anxious to get things done in these and other areas and has shown interest, energy and initiative. That is admirable. But in his haste he must be careful not to exceed his powers, however urgent the need or however severe he might consider the provocation to be.