BASSETERRE, St. Kitts -– An appeal to Caribbean youth not to settle for second best was made by Sir Charles Michael Dennis Byron, a legal luminary and man of many accomplishments in the judicial field for 54 years, during the Jan. 5 Prime Minister’s New Year’s Gala.
Some of Sir Dennis’s notable accomplishments include being a Judge of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court from 1996-2006; President of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 2007-2011; and President of the Caribbean Court of Justice from 2011-2018.
Sir Dennis addressed hundreds of attendees during the Jan 5 Prime Minister’s Gala hosted by Dr. the Honourable Timothy Harris at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort Ballroom.
“The sky is our goal, the only limitations that as a region we have are those imposed by our own imaginations,” Sir Dennis explained. “Rid ourselves of mental slavery, rise up, and stand up for our rights imagine that the world would be a better place when we occupy our rightful and equal space.”
Sir Dennis said he decided to talk about “unity” in a very broad sense which encompasses the prospects of national unity in St. Kitts and Nevis and in the wider and historical promise of unity among the states of the Caribbean.
“The National Heroes to some extent also inspire this theme,” Sir Dennis said. “The first three are the Labour Party stalwarts, the triumvirate of Bradshaw, Southwell and France; then there is the Nevis hero Simeon Daniel who surrendered his belief in secession to form a coalition government for the benefit of the state and his people as a whole.
“All of those were acknowledged as heroes after their deaths. So it is with pleasure I come to the only living National Hero Sir Kennedy Simmonds, who is here with us tonight, the successful leader of the People’s Action Movement (PAM) which led the first real coalition government in the State and became the country’s first prime minister after leading it to independence.
“Now that their statues have been unveiled at Heroes’ Park, it is interesting to see these former combatants occupying the same space in unity, and hopefully sending out messages from which we can all learn.
“The historical quest for unity has been a long and often fitful struggle to give meaningful substance to the underlying desire of our people to tap into our potential and come together towards a common purpose.
A Unified Past
“In the Commonwealth Caribbean, our colonial history is still evident in the inherited political cultures and institutions that have been adapted to the Caribbean Democracies,” Sir Dennis said. “Despite a few dark spots on the historical landscape, this region has emerged as one of the most democratic regions in the developing world.
“Well over a hundred general elections have been held in the independent states of the Commonwealth Caribbean since the first vote under universal suffrage was held in Jamaica in 1944. We here in St. Kitts attained it in 1952. Changes of government have resulted from elections, rather than military or other coups. The Commonwealth Caribbean has a high incidence of political stability and a solid record of respect for democratic principles.
“Adherence to the Rule of Law is a key pillar of any democracy,” Sir Dennis said. “Effective rule of law reduces corruption and increases public accountability, encourages respect for fundamental rights, and protects people from injustices both large and small.
“Coming closer home to St. Kitts and Nevis, I came across the World Justice Project, Rule of Law Index 2017-2018. It measures the rule of law based on the experience and perceptions of the general public and in-country experts worldwide. It presents a portrait of the rule of law in 113 countries by providing scores and rankings. St. Kitts- Nevis was ranked 3rd in Latin America and the Caribbean and the highest in the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Regional Unity: A Historical Struggle
“The journey towards regional unity goes back to the era of slave resistance and revolt in the Caribbean,” Sir Dennis explained. “The stubborn and persistent “no” to the systemic dehumanization of an entire race of people laid the foundation for a unified regional movement underpinned by the common theme of resistance. The post-emancipation decades of the 19th and 20th centuries saw an extension of this foundation.
“Fast forward to 1958 and the experiment of the West Indies Federation, which alas collapsed in 1962, two years before the birth of Prime Minister Dr. the Honourable Timothy Harris.
“When one thinks of the idea of unity, it would do well to remember that one of the St. Kitts National Heroes Robert Bradshaw was a key figure in that Caribbean political union that was intended to become independent of Britain as a single state,” Sir Dennis said. “Recall the tremendous promise of such a union, of all these different countries within the region, coming together like a Team Unity. Mr PM, you see this idea has roots, planted before your birth, which could have grown into a tree of regional unity. But that failure never stopped the idea of unity within our region.
“The following decades of unified struggle influenced by conscious intellectualism and political leadership resulted in the 1965 Dickenson Bay Agreement establishing CARIFTA, then graduating to the 1972 Treaty of Chaguaramas transforming CARIFTA to CARICOM and establishing the Caribbean Community and Common Market. This has been further strengthened by the 2001 Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (RTC) which formed the legal basis for the establishment of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). For those who think that it is so difficult for us to unite as a people and region, let us not forget that the Caribbean Community is one of the longest surviving integration movements throughout the developing world.
“Then there is the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Sir Dennis explained. “In addition to its other utilities it is an integral part of the operation of the CSME and is an important symbol of regional unity.
“The CCJ has an original and appellate jurisdiction. It is the original jurisdiction is very relevant to our discussions this evening, and every member state is part of its operations including St. Kitts and Nevis. In that capacity, the Court exercises compulsory and exclusive jurisdiction to interpret and apply the provisions of the RTC thereby ensuring uniform application of its rules and promoting certainty in the operation of the CSME.
“In its short time of operation the Court has already had many famous cases in the Original Jurisdiction e.g. by responding to complaints from a cement manufacturer in Trinidad to compel the Guyanese government to impose the agreed tariffs on extra-regional cement imports from the Dominican Republic [Trinidad Cement Limited and TCL Guyana Incorporated v Guyana]; complaints from CARICOM manufacturers of wheat products to compel the Suriname Government to impose tariffs on extra-regional imports from the Netherlands [Hummingbird Rice Mills Ltd v Suriname]; and I suppose the most well-known case establishing and enforcing the right of CARICOM citizens to hassle-free travel within the region [Shanique Myrie v Barbados].
“Coming closer to home again, there was the 1981 Treaty of Basseterre which established the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS): with various aspects of cooperation such as a common currency and a central bank; a unified judiciary the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court; about 19 areas of shared institutions including the economic cooperation arrangement in the ECCM.
“The 2010 Revised Treaty of Basseterre enhanced the concept of unity creating the OECS Economic Union with new bodies such as the OECS Assembly (comprising members of Parliament and legislatures), as well as a strengthened Secretariat (now called the “Commission”) and conferring super national legislative competence in five areas: the common market and customs union, monetary policy, trade policy, maritime jurisdiction and boundaries, and civil aviation.
A Deeper Unity
“So how do we measure our democratic credentials?” asked Sir Dennis. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM} countries primarily do so in terms of regular, competitive elections.
“Elections are not merely a contest of visions and policies, but an opportunity to improve the well-being of all citizens. This latter objective is not always obvious because of the extreme tribalism of some political parties, where their narrow and self – interested agendas take precedence over the interest of citizens in general.
“Sometimes, election outcomes in the classic ‘first-past-the-post’ or ‘winner-takes-all’ system pose a challenge to governance.
“For example, there could be stress on the democratic institutions when a party sweeps the parliamentary seats and the government is without a formal opposition: we are observing current examples in Grenada and Barbados.
“Alternatively, where a victory at the polls has been narrowly achieved it may deny the government a strong mandate and could undermine its claims to legitimacy. I recall that this situation occurred in St. Lucia in 1987 and the victorious party – the United Workers Party (UWP) led by John Compton, immediately dissolved parliament and went back to the polls within the same month, in search of a stronger mandate, but alas the new elections repeated the same outcome, although on this second occasion one member crossed the floor and strengthened the hand of the government.
“It also happened right here in St. Kitts and Nevis in 1993 when the general elections failed to produce a clear winner between the two major parties,” Sir Dennis said. “This eventually resulted in holding fresh elections in 1995, a little over 18 months later.
“The termination of the life of a government ahead of the constitutional date of elections, whether as an outcome of extreme political pressure or external intervention, emphasizes the fragility of the democratic arrangements and the conflicts that they induce. There is a current example of this in Guyana at this time.
Unity in Political Coalitions
Sir Dennis said, “Therefore even in domestic politics the idea of unity and merging of various political groupings seems to provide an antidote to this tribalism. Coalition formation or building is a process of organizing parties collectively in pursuit of a common goal.
“At the heart of any unity-driven political coalition is the central concept of good governance. As a necessary component of good governance, the concept of accountability emphasizes the need for leadership to be answerable for its stewardship, thus strengthening good governance and empowering stakeholders and beneficiaries alike.
The Examples of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana
“In the Caribbean, there are several examples in electoral politics of successful coalition models,” Sir Dennis said. “Illustrations can be found in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. In Trinidad and Tobago, there were several such coalitions over time. The classic one was the last, the People’s Partnership which was a coalition of four parties formed in advance of the 2010 general elections. The coalition subsequently won the election and secured 29 out of 41 seats in the House of Representatives.
“Guyana has a different electoral system. It is proportional representation. This system is more consistent with coalition governments. The current Government is essentially a coalition of former rivals. It is of course left to be seen whether the coalition will continue after the Government was brought down by a no-confidence vote on 21st December 2018, triggering the holding of elections within three months.
“The coalitions served an important purpose in these two jurisdictions given their ethnic demographics and the tensions that often arose during election periods.
“In observing these past movements, it is clear that compromise rather than factionalism must therefore be the modus operandi of successful coalitions.
The St. Kitts Situation
Coming home to St. Kitts and Nevis: As you all know, in the February 2015 national elections, Team Unity, a coalition of three parties, defeated the 20-year reign in government of the St Kitts and Nevis Labour Party.
“It has been suggested that this “Team Unity” was birthed out of the reality that St. Kitts and Nevis had become severely divided by politics. This is a belief that exists in countries throughout the region – a belief that political tribalism has become rampant and has failed to create better conditions for our region’s people.
“This was not the first government here that saw participation from different parties,” Sir Dennis said. “I recall that the Bradshaw Government drafted Eugene Walwyn as its Attorney General, after he had fought the general elections against it as the leader of the UNM party in Nevis in 1966.
“To those of you interested in political personalities, that relationship was not easily foreseeable, because there had been a very hostile relationship between the two men previously, which included Bradshaw successfully moving a motion to have Walwyn expelled from Parliament during the previous term. However, the relationship did not last and by 1971 Bradshaw was looking for a change of AG.
“The next major incident in political unification was novel and at the time completely unexpected. In 1980, the Labour Party then being led by Lee Moore won four seats in St. Kitts against three won by PAM led by Dr. Kennedy Simmonds.
“In Nevis, the NRP led by Simeon Daniel which incidentally had been campaigning on a platform of secession from St. Kitts, secured two seats. PAM and NRP formed a coalition government that lasted for 15 years under the leadership of the Dr. the Right Hon. Kennedy Simmonds.
“While PAM and NRP only came together after the 1980 election to forge a coalition alliance, it is worthy of note that Dr. Simmonds continued to invite Sim Daniel and the NRP to form the government in the next two elections even though PAM won the majority of seats on its own in 1984 and 1989.
Sir Dennis said, “The coming of Team Unity, did not take the country by surprise. On the contrary, the polls suggested that the public was ready for a government of national unity, comprising combinations of people from all the existing political groupings.
“Dr. Timothy Harris had been part of the Douglas Government, from 1995 to 2013. During that time, he held almost every ministerial portfolio, being Minister of Agriculture, Education, Labour and Social Security, Foreign Affairs, International Trade, Industry and Commerce and Finance.
“But Harris had demonstrated other qualities. He was a brilliant intellectual at UWI sailing through his chosen field of accounting with first class honours in his BSc and graduating top of his class with distinction in his MSc in accounting. While he was a Minister he took time out to pursue and obtain a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Administration majoring in Accounting.
“In 2013 he parted ways with the Douglas Administration and helped to form the People’s Labour Party.
“Perhaps one of Dr. Harris’s best qualities was his willingness to embrace the dream of national unity,” Sir Dennis explained. The creation of the Team Unity movement was formally established through a Memorandum of Understanding to form a political alliance with the PAM and CCM entitled the National Unity Agreement signed by the leaders of the three parties in 2013.
“This agreement set out the principles of the Unity concept with each party subordinating its own agendas to the commitment of adhering to programs and policies that would benefit every citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis regardless of race, gender, religion, and political affiliation, place of origin or birth. It stated that it was determined to build a society free of violence and based on several laudable principles including the rule of law, good governance, social justice, fairness openness, transparency, dignity and equality. It mapped out a framework with a clear national purpose, core values that would guide the policies of any government it formed which would be aimed at promoting the wellbeing to all citizens.
“The other unique accomplishment was the Charlestown Accord, an agreement between the three parties aimed at solidifying the commitment to develop Nevis on an equal footing with St. Kitts completing a second wing of the Unity concept, one, being between political parties and the other between St. Kitts and Nevis.
“With this vision, where the interests of each party were subordinated to the perceived national interests, these former political rivals joined forces. It was interesting to note that Dr. Harris was accepted as the team leader of the movement. His intellect, qualifications and experience, and public acceptability naturally fit him for this role. And so it was of historic importance that in the arrangements preceding the general election it was PAM who fielded candidates in six of the eight constituencies in St. Kitts; PLP in two constituencies and CCM in three constituencies in Nevis.
“In the outcome of the elections, PLP only won one seat, with PAM winning four seats and CCM two seats. Yet each party adhered to the pre-election agreement and formed a government under the leadership of Dr. Harris.
“The success of Unity is that it only works with compromise and accountability so that in the end the concept is greater the individuals who comprise it,” Sir Dennis said. “That is the genius of the concept and why it could be a model that would help to improve the quality of life in the Caribbean Region.
“In closing, I suppose I ought to explain the origin of the topic of my speech. It is an excerpt from the Preamble of the Constitution of St. Christopher and Nevis, the Supreme Law of our Nation. And tonight I have sought to examine the concept of unity as espoused therein and to show how the people of St. Kitts and Nevis are fulfilling their Constitutional commitments “to achieve their national objectives with a unity of purpose.”