May 9, 2004
On Friday Minister Gajraj issued a statement in which he informed the public that he had asked the President for an impartial inquiry into the death squad allegations, and had indicated that he was willing to proceed on leave in order to allay any fears that there might be interference with the process. Well this is certainly progress, although one must assume that the Government had already made a decision that there would be an investigation, and as a gesture, Mr Gajraj was simply given the opportunity to make his statement to the nation first.
While the Government is to be commended for eventually coming around to this position, one can only wonder what took them so long, when it was clear to onlookers of a variety of political persuasions that this particular problem was not going to go away, and that for the sake of their credibility, if for no other reason, they would have to set up some form of commission of inquiry. As it is, by not moving quickly on a matter which had the potential to burgeon into a scandal, they have done their reputation unnecessary damage. If the allegations had no merit, they had nothing to fear from an independent investigation, and if they had merit, then there was no way out except a credible inquiry. At least then they could be seen to be taking vigorous action to clean out the stable, so to speak.
Of course, the fact that the administration has by implication acceded to the holding of an investigation, is not the end of the issue. What is critical is the composition of the inquiry, and the terms of reference under which it will operate. As far as the time-frame which any commission will be asked to explore is concerned, the Government can take comfort in Mr Ravi Dev's reported statement that in the letter which the combined opposition sent to the United Nations, it was proposed that the examination should include the violence in the country since the February 2002 jailbreak. Among other things, that would encompass the Buxton "criminal enterprise," as the police have been wont to call it.
There are other difficult questions to resolve too, such as whether the inquiry should function more like a truth commission with no legal consequences ensuing for those who give testimony before it; whether only some people should be given immunity from prosecution, and if so, who; whether any of the hearings or all of them should be held in camera; whether it will be necessary to offer some witnesses protection, and if so, what form that should take; and whether the hearings should be held on Guyanese soil at all, and if not, where.
The first question to be decided, of course, is the form the probe should take, and who should sit on the panel. The Government will not be allowed to escape with an investigation that has primarily a cosmetic end in mind; what is set up has not just to be independent and impartial, but has to be seen to be independent and impartial. In these circumstances, appearances are everything, and if the administration puts in place arrangements which are construed beyond the boundaries of Freedom House not to meet the normal specifications for investigations of this kind, it will be worse than if they had not set up anything at all. They can ill afford to be accused of a cover-up, more especially if that is not what they had intended in the first place.
Now that the Government has got this far - which is a huge concession for them to have made considering the contumely they have poured on those who have been asking for a probe over the past months - they will have to follow their decision to its logical conclusion. Perhaps their best course of action at this point is negotiation with the combined opposition on the form, etc, the inquiry should take, possibly with some third party or parties as facilitators. If they commit themselves genuinely to an impartial inquiry, they would have done more to restore confidence in their administration and in their claims of transparency and accountability than anything else they could have done.