The police have a general responsibility when it comes to security Peeping Tom
Kaieteur News
November 2, 2006

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There have been two interesting tidbits in the news this past week, both of which concern the possibility of citizens taking legal action against the State for its failure to solve crimes involving human fatalities, and for negligence in the loss of weapons by the army.

Today, I wish to recap an article that I wrote in April of this year, which deals with the general responsibility of the police for maintaining security. That article specifically addressed the implications of the assassination of Minister Satyadeow Sawh, and it is now timely to revisit it in light of the news that some members of the extended Sawh family are proposing taking the matter to the courts.

This is what I wrote in April:

The police have a general responsibility for maintaining security. This means that they are entrusted with the overall responsibility of ensuring that citizens are safe. This is a general responsibility, and therefore the police cannot be sued for specific cases of criminal acts.

However, when it comes to the security of officials of the State, there is a special responsibility assigned to the police. The State has an obligation to offer the best protection possible to members of Cabinet, Members of Parliament- the highest representative body in the land- members of the judiciary, senior ranks of the disciplined services as well as constitutional office holders, including the Leader of the Opposition and past presidents. The police must assure the safety and protection of these officials. The police, therefore, have a duty to protect the officials of the State, because these officials embody the authority of the State.

When the law enforcement authorities fail to protect its officials, it undermines the very legitimacy and existence of the State. The death of any minister of the government is therefore a serious security concern, which demands that those entrusted with the security of ministers be held accountable. In established democracies of the world, law enforcement authorities are particular about the security of officials, because they know that should anything happen to any of these officials, they will be held accountable.

I am greatly disturbed, therefore, when I hear arguments which tend to trivialize the death of a minister. I am disgusted when I hear people say that others have also been killed in the country and they do not understand what all the fuss is about. If this is the position that people are going to take, Guyana cannot be part of the world community of nations, because those who make such trifling generalisations do not appreciate what the State stands for and what officials of the State represent.

A diplomat, for example, is a representative of his or her country. And foreign governments treat the representatives of any foreign government with special attention because, should they fail to protect that person, the reputation of their country is at stake. Diplomats also enjoy certain privileges, in keeping with international conventions, one of which is immunity from prosecution, in certain cases. This is in keeping with the high regard with which established democracies hold their own officials and, by extension, the officials of other countries.

The assassination of a minister of government cannot therefore be compared simply with the death of an ordinary citizen, even though both are entitled to equality before the law. The death of an official of the State requires a serious response, because an attack on an official of the State constitutes an attack on the State, in the same way that a shot fired from foreign troops stationed across our borders can be considered an international incident and, in non-accidental circumstances, an act of aggression.

In the case of Minister Sawh, it is the first time that a minister of government has been killed in such gruesome circumstances, and all the evidence point to a clear case of political assassination.

In established democracies, incidents such as this would have already led to resignations within the security sector; but it just goes to show how backward we are when it comes to political and personal accountability.

The death of the minister also represents the failure of security. It is not as if we did not know that a threat was present. We may not have known who would have been the next victim. But what we did know was that within society there was a monstrous force that killed and burnt their victims with impunity. Just under two months ago, this gang had struck in Agricola. Weeks later, one of the weapons used in the Agricola attack was recovered following a police operation in Buxton. So there was clear ballistic evidence before the police. And considering the politicized nature of the criminal activities of gunmen operating with high-powered weapons, especially out of Buxton, in the past, this should have raised alerts within the security sector. No alerts were, however, made public; and it is safe to assume that extra protection was not afforded to State officials, both within the government, within Parliament, and in the judiciary.

The signs were there since 2001 that there was a group intent on using violence to achieve political ends. The signs were there all along that extra-constitutional threats were present. What did the police think that the men who attacked them in Buxton were doing there?

What we therefore have with the death of Minister Sawh is not only a glaring failure of the intelligence services, but also a failure of the entire security sector. I am therefore calling for a parliamentary commission to be established to examine the failure of national security to intercept this threat which led to the death of the minister.

A start must also be made in terms of re-establishing accountability and political responsibility, which were present under the British. And the best way to start this is to hold accountable those directly responsible. I am not going to jump high and low, like my fellow columnist Uncle Freddie, and say that the Commissioner of Police must go, but so, too, must the political directorate. This is sidestepping the issue.

If I am running a business, and something terrible goes wrong, I know that I have to take firm action. I know that my first response would be to find out where the problem was, and to fire the person who failed to do his job or failed to take action to prevent the wrong that happened. I may like the person; he may have even been doing a good job; but in business, you know the importance of holding people accountable, because if you do not, then you will run into problems, since staff will feel that they can do what they want and get away with it. In short, the first step is to hold accountable those directly responsible. I can then move on to see whether the problem needs to be addressed at a higher level.

And in the case of the death of Minister Sawh, I should think that those who should walk know who they are. It is unacceptable that they are still not doing what is expected.

Having dealt with this aspect of those directly responsible, we can then move on to address the wider security implications. And when the parliamentary commission begins to examine in detail the security situation surrounding this death, including the failure of the intelligence community, we will have a solid and legitimate basis to know where the buck should finally stop.