Battle over extension of SOEs heads to Senate today

Government and Opposition members of the Upper House are expected to face off today over the states of emergency (SOEs) now in place across seven parishes.

The Government needs to convince at least one of the eight Opposition senators to break ranks and vote to extend the SOEs, or watch them collapse next week.

But with Leader of the Opposition Mark Golding and Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate Peter Bunting already voicing their disagreement with the extension of the SOEs, it seems likely that today’s debate will be nothing more than an opportunity for senators to seek to score points with the public.

Following a lengthy debate on Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives approved the resolutions extending the SOEs for 45 days to January 14, 2023.

Forty-four members of the Lower House — all on the Government benches — voted “yes” to The Emergency Powers (Parishes of Clarendon and St Catherine and specified areas in the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew) (Continuance) Resolution, 2022; and The Emergency Powers (Parishes of St James, Westmoreland and Hanover) (Continuance) Resolution, 2022, while three were “nos”, from the Opposition benches, and 16 absences.

The SOEs, which were declared on November 14, are set to expire on November 28 if there is not the two-thirds support from both Houses.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who opened the debate on the SOE regulations on Tuesday, said the country and its people are under threat from organised crime, criminal terrorists, and psychopaths, who have been escalating the murder rate.

“The increasing levels of violence across the island saw the murder total at 1,360 as of November 13. This was a 6.8 percentage point above last year. These high levels of homicide are evident in 10 of 19 police divisions which have yielded 72 per cent of murders and 75 per cent of shootings nationally,” said Holness.

He argued that the rise in the availability of guns is a significant cause of concern with gang-related violence continuing to account for the escalation in the crime rate.

Illegal firearms have been the preferred weapon of choice by gangs, accounting for 71 per cent of all murders committed in Jamaica.

Holness said that a strategy to bring murders down is to include the use of emergency powers when the rate of increase in murders and crime is moving faster than normal.

“Taking life is now at epidemic levels. Murder is a public health crisis in Jamaica. It infects the minds of some of our citizens to the point that they lose all respect for the sanctity of human life. Some of our citizens have become psychopathic and brutal. We have to acknowledge this and treat with it,” added the prime minister.

Responding to comments by the Opposition that the Government is overly dependent on SOEs to tackle crime, Holness insisted that his Administration is not solely relying on the emergency measure but is trying to maximise its effort in reducing the number of murders and maximise the number of lives saved.

He insisted that the SOEs have been working and have been the most successful tool in bringing down the murder numbers and crime in the shortest period.

Holness pointed out that during the week of November 13 to 19, 12 murders were recorded nationally, which is the lowest number recorded in a week for this year.

“In fact, it is the lowest number recorded in any week since 2015, and this is only five days of the week which were under SOEs. This is consistent with the reductions we have come to expect under SOEs,” said Holness.

He noted that there have been no murders since the declaration of the SOE in the four police divisions of St Andrew South, Kingston West, Kingston Central and Kingston East.

But Golding rejected the prime minister’s appeal as he argued that the continued use of SOEs was a subversion of Jamaica’s constitutional order, which he could not support.

“As it stands today, the courts have cast doubt on the constitutionality of the Government’s use of SOE procedure, and in that context, it is in my view highly inappropriate and a disregard for the cardinal constitutional principle of respecting the separation of powers among the three branches of the State for the Government to continue using the SOE in this way,” said Golding.

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