TORONTO — President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Justice Adrian Saunders, a Vincentian, says he had hoped that his elevation to that post would have united his nation in support of the court at the nation’s highest judicial authority.
He further told an event held in Toronto last Saturday to mark the 39th anniversary of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ independence from Britain that he is often embarrassed to have to explain to his colleagues from around the world, the CARICOM countries’ opposition to the court.
“I had hoped that with my elevation to the presidency of the CCJ, I would be able to get all parties in SVG to put aside their political differences and to embrace the court in its appellate jurisdiction,” Saunders said.
Saunders was the featured speaker at the event, organised by the SVG Organisation of Toronto, and spoke on the topic “Remembering Our Past – Focussing On Our Future”.
The Ralph Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party, reversing a position held before it came to office in March 2001, has lined up in support of the CCJ to replace the London-based Privy Council as SVG’s highest court.
In July, the prime minister said that the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court gave an opinion that two-thirds majority support of lawmakers, rather than a referendum is needed to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ.
Gonsalves also said he is willing to bring such a law to Parliament but would only do so if he has opposition support.
However, the main opposition New Democratic Party, led by Godwin Friday, who, like Gonsalves, is a lawyer, has made it clear that it would not support a move to the CCJ.
In comments earlier this year, Friday said that the electorate rejected such a move when given a choice in a referendum in 2009, adding that Parliament should respect voters’ choices.
He, however, said that if another referendum is held on the issue, his party would rally its supporters in an attempt to vote it down.
Saunders said: “If we are to advance as a people, politics and political tussles are important for a healthy democracy. But there are eternal core human values that are overarching. Truth, compassion, cooperation, caring, courtesy, empathy, hard honest labour … These are values Opposition and Government alike and indeed, all the people must promote,” he said, according to the transcript sent to the media.
He, however, said there is another value that is paramount and is vital for the citizens of the Caribbean “with our fractured experiences of slavery and colonialism.
“That other value is self-belief: a clear sense of ourselves. An understanding of our worth as human beings; an appreciation that we are not inferior to anyone and that we have the capacity to forge our own destiny,” he said.
The jurist said his heart soars when he hears of Vincentians who excel regionally or internationally.
“Because that becomes for me a re-affirmation of our worth, our capacity,” he said, adding that no one shrieked for joy louder than he did when West Indies cricketer Obed McCoy, a Vincentian, bowled out Indian cricketer MS Dhoni last week.
“It is, therefore, for me, a source of profound disappointment, that so many people in the region, including Vincentians who I assumed would know better, contrive to find excuse upon excuse to justify the anomaly that, after 40 years of political independence, we are content to have our laws ultimately interpreted and applied by a British institution, staffed with British judges all of whom reside in Britain. History will not be kind to those who argue that such a situation should continue.”
Saunders said this is no different than a man today wanting SVG to return to Associated Statehood status, or wanting to write O-Level exams from Cambridge instead of the Caribbean Examinations Council.
“For me, it is like choosing Major Leith over Chatoyer,” Saunders said, contrasting the Scottish soldier who served in the British Army, to SVG’s sole National Hero, who led a years-long guerrilla war in the 18th Century against European attempts to colonise SVG.
Saunders noted that over 15 years ago, CARICOM established its own final court — the CCJ — and spent US$100 million to guarantee the court’s sustainability.
“… the Court has successfully been operating for well over 10 years serving the needs of Barbados, Guyana, Belize and lately, Dominica; and some people still wish to cling to the Privy Council?” he said, mentioning the CARICOM nations that have replaced the Privy Council with the CCJ as their final appellate court.
“If Chatoyer, who put his life on the line, were alive today just imagine, what would he think of this?” Saunders said.
Saunders that when he tries to explain to his colleagues from Asia, Africa and Latin America — as he is “sometimes obliged to do at judicial colloquia” — the “anomaly” of CARICOM nations not having replaced the Privy Council with the CCJ, “it ceases to be an anomaly.
“In the face of the disbelief expressed by my colleagues, it becomes an embarrassment because it is linked directly to our perception of ourselves and the level of confidence we have in our capacity to take full responsibility for our own governance.”
Saunders said he addressed a graduating class at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill Campus in Barbados one week earlier and told them that he remained confident.
“Confident that the ill-informed would become better informed. That the sceptical would become convinced. I look to the future and I remain confident that, as is the case with, for example, The Caribbean Development Bank, the Caribbean Examinations Council, and The University of the West Indies (to name just a few), the time will come when the CCJ also will be recognised as another of those Caribbean institutions whose vital contribution to the region can almost be taken for granted,” Saunders said.
“As we focus on the future, it is essential that we appreciate that we can and must rely on ourselves to forge our own destiny. We can and must build a stronger St Vincent and the Grenadines and an equally strong Caribbean Community,” he said.
Two CARICOM members, Grenada and the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, will hold referenda on Nov. 6 to decide whether to replace the Privy Council with the CCJ as their highest court.