May 24 will make 6 years since the 2010 joint security operation in West Kingston, which resulted in the death of more than 70 people, and by all indications the report of the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry will be submitted to the Governor General before then. It isn’t yet clear, however, when the report will be made public. It would certainly be fitting if that were to happen before May 24.
The last session of the Enquiry took place between February 8 – 19 (2016) and was to a large extent overshadowed by the political campaigning leading up to the general election on February 25.
The Commission held its first sitting on December 1, 2014 and held a total of 90 sittings over 15 months. It was presided over by three commissioners – Sir David Simmons (Chairman), Justice Hazel Harris and Professor Anthony Harriott.
The Enquiry had specific Terms of Reference (Terms of Reference for the Commission of Enquiry into events which occured in Western Kingston and related areas in May 2010) and more than 90 witnesses gave testimony, including:
- residents of West Kingston
- former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, former Minister of National Security Dwight Nelson, former Attorney General & Minister of Justice Dorothy Lightbourne
- former Chief of Defence Staff of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), Major General Stewart Saunders and other members of the JDF
- former Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington and other members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force
- former Public Defender Earl Witter, QC
- other civilian witnesses, public officials and expert witnesses.
The release of the report will raise again for discussion the value of having had the Enquiry. In this regard, comments made by Lord Anthony Gifford, QC, who represented the Office of the Public Defender (OPD), are important; the comments were made on February 18, 2016, at the start of his final submissions to the Commission.
Lord Gifford thanked former Public Defender Earl Witter for having called for the Enquiry,and for his work on investigations towards that end. He then went on to address the Chairman on the importance of holding the Enquiry:
Mr Chairman, we are going to be urging that you and your colleagues make strong findings in relation to a number of human rights abuses. We hope and trust that your report will be a historic document, which will reduce or eliminate such abuses in the future. But Mr Chairman, I would like to say publicly to those who have had doubts about the value of this enquiry that already the process, which has happened over the last 90 days (but in fact, year and a quarter) has had in itself immense value. And I say that for three reasons.
First of all, it has shown that an event which has cost around 70 lives in one operation cannot be swept under the carpet. It is legally a part of the duty of the state under the right to life, that when life is taken by agents of the state there must be a full and impartial enquiry. So that what has been done was necessary by the Constitution and by international principles.
And in the holding of it and the managing of it, I pay tribute to the even-handedness of you, Mr Chairman, and the intense interest, dedication that you all have shown, especially, may I say, at times when the argument has been robust or the scenes have been emotional. And coupled with thanks to you, I would thank your Secretary and all her staff for the efficient assistance which they have given.
It’s not just a question of law. The second value of the process so far has been that voices, it has enabled the voices of the residents, many residents of Tivoli Gardens to be heard. These are voices which are normally not heard but they have been heard over the last year, the length and breadth of Jamaica and further afield. And I thank the members of the media who have enabled the transmission of these hearings, to all those (and there are many) who have watched them or listened to them in their workplace or their homes. And those voices have been the heart of this enquiry. I would like to pay tribute to the courage of the civilian witnesses, who came forward, re-living the pain of their experiences as they spoke about the loved ones who are here no more. And I say to those witnesses, without your participation, this enquiry would have had little or no value.
Mr Chairman, thirdly, it has been valuable because this enquiry has required those who hold and have held some of the highest offices in the land to come here, account for their actions and be subjected to severe and intense questioning and scrutiny. That does not usually happen. People like the Chief of the General Staff and the Police Commissioner don’t often have to answer questions in justification of what they did. And the exercise has been very revealing. And that is why I wanted to say that, quite apart from the contents of your report, what has happened already has had value in recognizing the pain, the trauma and by re-living it and questioning it to make it bring some kind of understanding and, in due course, we hope closure.
(Transcript made from February 18, 2016 broadcast of Enquiry)
The Submissions and Recommendations made by the OPD are posted on its website, which is welcome and useful. The OPD’s April 2013 Interim Report to Parliament is also available on the site.
Horace Levy has written an article summarizing the OPD’s Submissions and Recommendations, which can be accessed here.
The West Kingston Commission of Enquiry is part of a process. The publishing of the report will not signal the end of that process. It is one more step or milestone in a much longer journey towards accountability and justice for the largest loss of life in a single security operation in Jamaica since Independence (indeed, since the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, though some object to this reference).