Recently, the Government of Guyana, through some of its officials, announced its intention to appoint an International Commission of Inquiry “to get to the bottom” of the tragic incidents occurring in Berbice between September 6 and September 10, 2020. It is understood that countries are free to invite technical support and expertise from other countries with whom they have such agreements for cooperation. As is well known, the President at any time can appoint a Commission for issue of public interest under Chapter 19:03 of the Laws of Guyana.
Although I have assumed that the announcement had in mind the period, September 6 to September 10, 2020, the President is free in creating the Commission to fix its timelines, as well as to empower the Commission with Terms of Reference which give the tribunal powers of inquiry, power to compel witnesses and power to adjudicate and to issue its findings.
Up to now, our political history has recorded, among others, the following Commissions, all of which were appointed to inquire into matters in which the incidents were alleged to be incidents involving the State and what is called Public Order, riot and civil disorder, as well as matters of public administration:
UNDER THE PPP
1. 1962 – The Wynn-Parry Commission regarding disturbances in Georgetown related to the Kaldor budget.
2. The Wismar Commission of Inquiry relating to disturbances, deaths and other abuses of the person and arson occurring in Wismar in May, 1964.
UNDER THE PNC
1. Report of the British Guiana Commission of Enquiry: Racial problems in the Public Service (ICJ, 1965)
2. The Amerindian Land Commission.
3. The Guya Persaud Commission on the sugar industry.
4. The Jhappan Commission on the ballot box shootings of 1973.
UNDER THE PPP
1. 1998 -The Thomas-Armstrong report on public service salaries
2. 2000–2004 -The Gajraj Commission.
3. 2012 – The Commission into police shootings at Wismar.
4. 2014 – The Walter Rodney Commission of Enquiry
UNDER THE COALITION GOVERNMENT
1. Lindo Creek COI
2. The Ancestral Lands Commission 2017
The Commissions that I have recalled and listed above, as well as those I have forgotten and not listed, have one thing in common, and that is that they involve the State and the Administration of Public Affairs.
When a Commission is appointed into cases like those in Berbice in which bodies are discovered in out-of-the-way places, such a Commission may have value, but it will be a novel way of crime investigation within mere weeks of the crimes. Because of this, I have to be careful not to misrepresent the intentions of the Government, as announced by its representatives.
Under the Police Act, it is the Guyana Police Force that is charged with crime prevention and the investigation of crime. In promising an International Commission for the Berbice killings before the Guyana Police Force has assured Guyanese that it has got a grasp of the factors at work in the several homicides, the Government may be encouraging consequences it did not intend. The police, in general, may read this announcement as a sign of no confidence in the talents of the Guyana Police Force and may silently accept defeat. On the other hand, the announced intention to mount an international COI may have the opposite effect of challenging the forces engaged in the inquiry to double their efforts to find answers.
Up to this time, Commissions of Inquiry have been employed to throw light on some aspect on the relations between the State and sections of the population as in 1973, or to throw light on a conflicted situation as in 1964. Although the Berbice killings took place against a backdrop of scenes of a disturbed public order, or of protests, two of them presented evidence of a conflict bearing no relation to any known action of the State. The exception was the fatal police shooting on March 6 at Cotton Tree. Each of them was, therefore, seen by the average observer as a homicide. The Plantation Bath incident of September 9 appears to be the only one that took place in a setting involving protest action at or near the scene.
It is noteworthy that the protests in the village of Belladrum, which claimed a relationship with a suspect accused of electoral fraud, did not involve any fatality. The elderly village woman and a younger male villager, quoted in the media, both felt that the person they were defending had been unfairly singled out for arrest and investigation.
If we can now refer to the fatal incident on September 5, 2020 on the Albion Public Road, involving two construction workers, one of whom was unfortunately killed, it is instructive that the suspects’ statement could be checked against the record of the surveillance cameras that captured the incident.
What then about the Walter Rodney COI? I would venture to say that it became necessary because the Guyana Police Force was never allowed to investigate the incident. It became necessary also because, after Donald Rodney’s statement was published internationally, the involvement of the State became a matter of public knowledge.