The emergency option
January 25, 2003
Does a state of public emergency exist in Guyana? Many Guyanese would say yes. A crime wave has flowed virtually unchecked for over ten months, people in parts of the country live in constant fear, some have vacated their homes because of repeated attacks, an alarming number of policemen have been killed and the effect on the daily lives of people and on economic development has been incalculable. The only thing worse than the crisis that now exists is a civil war and that horrendous and nation-destroying experience has been avoided largely due to a lack of organised retaliation so far.
Should a state of emergency be proclaimed as a way of dealing with the present crisis? That is a more complex question on which opinions differ. It is clear that it is something that should not be undertaken lightly given the negative effect it can have on national life. However it will be recalled that the provisions of Part II of the National Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, passed in 1967, which authorise preventive detention and restriction of movement were in force for many years. Moreover Part IV of that Act which gives special powers of entry, seizure and arrest for explosives, firearms, and ammunition remains in force. So we have, so to speak, got used to living with some curtailment of our fundamental rights under the constitution. Some argue that a proclamation of a state of emergency is the only way to go given the level of criminality and the fear and disorder that exist. In an emergency, they say, appropriate measures can be taken to empower the police and the army to confront organised crime. Others have argued that it would raise the temperature and that political solutions should still be sought despite the failure to date of the efforts of the social partners. One senior government official had even questioned whether an emergency could be effectively enforced. And given the ineffectiveness of the disciplined services so far to tackle the crime wave there can be legitimate concerns on this score. The argument of those who support the proclamation of an emergency is that this will for the first time authorise the full participation of the army in dealing with the rampant criminality and restoring law and order. The army and the police will be given emergency powers to take such steps as are considered necessary ranging from searching premises to detention of persons.
What does a state of emergency involve? Those who were alive in the early sixties may vividly remember as they lived through more than one. Under Article 150 of our Constitution the president can proclaim that a state of emergency exists. Where such a proclamation has been made copies must as soon as practical be laid before the National Assembly and if by reason of its adjournment or the prorogation of Parliament the assembly is not due to meet within five days the President shall by proclamation summon the Assembly to meet and sit upon the day appointed and it shall continue to sit and act as if it had stood adjourned or Parliament had stood prorogued to that day. A proclamation of emergency shall, unless it is sooner revoked by the President, expire after fourteen days. However, he can make another one or the Assembly can approve its continuance in force for a further period not exceeding six months.
When a state of emergency is proclaimed regulations are made at the same time to deal with the situation that led to this. Under Section 30 of the National Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act the President can make regulations that deal with any of the following matters (a) censorship and control of publications or communications (b) arrest and detention of persons (c) control of harbours and ports (d) transportation of all kinds (e) exports and imports, production and manufacture, (f) amending or suspending the operation of any laws, (g) authorising the searching of persons and premises and the seizure of anything (h) empowering persons or authorities named in the regulations to make orders or rules or issue licences or permits (i) to appropriate or take control of property subject to compensation.
Article 150 of the constitution itself also effectively suspends some fundamental rights for the duration of the emergency as regards laws or actions that are “reasonably justifiable” in the circumstances arising or existing during that period.
The government has been under the most severe pressure from critics and opponents for failing to deal with the situation adequately and it must feel in a state of siege itself. Should it take the step of proclaiming an emergency and if so what regulations should it pass and what should it do thereafter? These are not easy matters to decide and it should clearly weigh the situation carefully after appropriate consultation, as well as the alternatives available. The crime wave is increasingly paralysing normal life in parts of Region Four.