What the diaspora is saying about Jamaica constitutional reform: Forum Outcome
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
The Jamaican diaspora deliberately or inadvertently omitted by Prime Minister Andrew Holness when he named the Constitution Reform Committee to undertake an historic review of the Jamaican constitution invoked great disappointment and dissatisfaction within Jamaican diaspora communities across the world. A plethora of voices in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, where millions of Jamaicans live have been raised in unison calling for inclusion of their input in the reform process. They are asking, “Why are diaspora patriotism, intellect, and voice’s being shunned?”
A group of diaspora members empaneled, on April 30, 2023, to address this and several other issues related to reform of the Jamaican constitution reflected the prevailing views across the three countries with high concentrations of Jamaicans living outside of Jamaica. (The list of panelists and their roles in the diaspora were described in “Jamaica Constitutional Reform: What the Diaspora is Saying”, The Ward Post, April 29, 2023.) Putting their disappointment aside, the panelists strongly urged the Prime Minister to correct the original error of his omission and bring diaspora input into the reform process in a meaningful way. They suggested that a reformed constitution will impact Jamaicans anywhere in the world they are. They reminded the government of the recognition often repeated by both political parties that ‘Jamaica is a country without borders!’
Diaspora recognition and usefulness should not be a matter of convenience when the diaspora is mined for social and development enhancement, and discarded when governance of the country is at stake. The question arises as to whether respective governments, particularly the current government, are fearful of diaspora members who are more apt to demand transparency in government and accountability by those in charge of the governance of the country. Are governments fearful that diaspora members are more likely to advocate for the interests of the people without regard to political partisanship and political self-interest?
The panelists reflected the broadly held view that reform of the constitution must result in a paradigm shift in the dynamics and relationship between the people and elected representatives. As Dr. Dahlia Bateman, diaspora panelist from Canada, succinctly stated, “Idiosyncrasies should not supersede democracy. It is the voice of the people that matters at all levels of government.” She said, “At the end of the day, it’s about the people.” There should be consensus that the new constitution ensures that elected officials always must be accountable to the people, and dereliction of their duties to the people should be cause for their removal from office before the next election cycle.
The current structure of the government came under heavy criticisms and there are strong opinions across the Jamaican diaspora as to what a truly representative government should be like. Tinkering with the constitution that leaves the current parliamentary system in place would be considered as a failure in the reform process and a failure by the Jamaican people to make the process meaningful. The diaspora strongly believes that the reformed constitution must create opportunities for the people to achieve aspirations of nationhood which have eluded them in the first 60 years of independence within the existing neocolonial construct. Dr. Doirean Wilson, diaspora panelist from the United Kingdom, noted, “Government needs to be fit for purpose.”
Dr. Franklin Knight, diaspora panelist from the United States, reflected this view in very strong terms. He said, “You cannot have a constitution which is not reflective of the people, constituted in the body politic.” Dr. Knight suggested that in this reform process, “We have to somehow restructure the current system to make it more inclusive, because clearly it is not working in that way.” In a companion article “Imperative considerations for a New Jamaican Constitution” published in The Ward Post, Dr. Knight offers detailed recommendations for restructuring of government and representation that would better serve the interests of the Jamaican people and be more responsive to the needs of the country, and that reform creates a representative form of government that creates a culture of good governance.
There are very strong views that the new President of an independent Jamaica should be elected directly by the people. The same should apply to a restructured Senate. Ms. Valarie Steele, diaspora panelist from Canada, reflected a broad consensus within the diaspora. She said, “All of the people who serve us should be elected.” Also, “The people must be educated as to the benefit of change. Change is constant.” She said. Dr. Knight offered that “Jamaicans have to be educated also not to be afraid of change. We have to inculcate in Jamaicans that change is a fundamental part of their lives, and they have to prepare themselves for it.” To this end, Dr. Wilson added that “Education is absolutely crucial, but so is an ethical approach.” The bottom line is education of the people as to the necessity and nature of constitutional reform must be honest and non-partisan. The reform process must be presented without the burden of political party considerations and protection of the narrow self-interests of a few.
Irwine Clare, diaspora panelist from the United States, noted that “We should get to a point in Jamaica where the man on the street understands that he has a right to justice, for freedom… so that he can champion” those rights. He said, “We must ensure that there is a pathway for inclusion. It is not just about replacing a monarchy and replacing it with something else. It must be something meaningful and purposeful.” Similarly, all panelists, reflecting the prevailing views of the diaspora, strongly advocated for ending the jurisdiction of the UK Privy Council as Jamaica’s court of last resort.
Discarding the monarchy and removing the Privy Council as Jamaica’s final court of appeals are intertwined in the process of removing the vestiges of colonialism and slavery. Jamaica as an independent nation must govern itself in all areas of governance, and the rights of the Jamaican people should no longer be determined by British Lords. To achieve these ends, broad consultations, and education of the Jamaican people on constitutional reform must be integral to the process. Rudi Page, diaspora panelist from the United Kingdom, insists “All voices must be heard. There should be extensive consultations throughout the diaspora as well as in Jamaica, so the people really understand what the proposed changes mean to everybody, there wellbeing … their prospects for the future.”
Inclusion of the diaspora, to include second generation Jamaicans with strong connections to the country and people, and their value to the process cannot be overemphasized. Dr. Doirean Wilson, in a companion article in The Ward Post, “Inclusion + Belongingness = Respect for UK Diaspora Jamaicans”, adds her views from the UK for inclusion. Many members of the diaspora are passionate about diaspora inclusion in the reform process.
We know from experience that diaspora members, more so than the local population, are more apt to demand transparency in government and accountability by those in charge of the governance of the country and are more likely to advocate for the interests of the people above partisanship and political self-interest. It is true that many in the diaspora demand transparency and good governance, guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms, an end to corruption and impunity for malfeasance, protection of human rights, equity and equal justice for all, and that government has a responsibility to guarantee human security across all spectra of society. Many members of the diaspora strongly believe that the constitution must facilitate all these and more. The government of Jamaica, regardless of political party, should willingly embrace these important reforms to strengthen our democracy.
As I have written before, Jamaicans at home and abroad believe that our nation’s constitution must be a vehicle through which the aspirations of our people can be met. The reformed constitution must facilitate all of these things, and more. These represent some of what we have a right to demand and expect. The government of Jamaica, regardless of political party, should willingly embrace important reforms that strengthen our democracy. We in the diaspora demand respect from whichever government holds the reign of power in Jamaica. As Dr. Bateman stated during our discussion, “All of us Jamaicans, regardless of who we vote for, we love our country, regardless of where we live, and we want our country to love us back.” I agree!
[The full video of the Forum is available on Ambassador Curtis Ward YouTube Channel.]
© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post