At a time of economic decline among the majority of countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and a recognition that the region is battling in an unfavourable milieu in terms of trade, aid and investment, the people of the area naturally look to their governments to devise strategies and mechanisms for improving their condition.
Instinctively, the people of each CARICOM country know that the challenges that confront them cannot adequately be met by their national governments alone. The hope is that governments, acting together and drawing upon the combined resources of each nation-state, will be better able to deliver benefits people urgently need including poverty alleviation, employment and economic growth.
From its outset CARICOM has been hobbled by the absence of machinery for implementing the decisions that are taken. The fact that the integration project has advanced at all over the 36 years of its existence is largely due to external pressures rather than internal initiatives. Hence, the Caribbean people have come to expect long statements and declarations from meetings of Heads of Government with little follow-up action and failure to fulfil pledges with deeds.
Unquestionably, there is disenchantment with CARICOM as an instrument for the improvement of the lives of the people of the Community.
None of this is the fault of the five Secretaries-General that have served CARICOM from its inception. Each of them from William Demas to Edwin Carrington believed in the regional project; recognised its importance – and necessity – to bargaining in a highly competitive global environment; and kept alive the promise that strong integration arrangements, respected and upheld by national governments, could help to deliver better conditions for the region’s people.
The people of CARICOM owe a debt of gratitude to all its Secretaries-General. After all, they were not heads of government. They could present the options, urge positions, and try to push the pace of integration, but at the end of the day, they could take the regional project no further than heads of government collectively allowed. Having worked with each of them, I know how hard each of them tried in his own way.
Against this background, it is unlikely that the recent proposal by a small group of Heads of Government to establish a “Permanent Committee of Ambassadors” as the answer for improved governance of the Community will imbue in the people of CARICOM a sense of confidence that a major step has been taken to advance regional arrangements in a way that will benefit them.
As it stands, the proposed Committee of Ambassadors is set on a collision course with established organs of CARICOM such as the Council of Ministers and the Secretary-General both of whom have established legal roles in the organisation.
But, it is as yet, still only a proposal, and one that has not been fleshed out.
In the next few weeks the proposal is to be examined and refined and then put to all CARICOM Heads of government at their next meeting. By then, hopefully, the organisational difficulties that the proposed Committee poses will be worked out satisfactorily.
However, what will not be worked out - unless the proposal is fundamentally changed - is the very thing that it is supposed to address and that is the implementation of decisions.
The proposal seems to have been driven by the fear that anything more ambitious would require the delegation of aspects of national sovereignty that some CARICOM member-governments cannot abide. Yet, it is that very determination to keep individual national control of all regional initiatives that has caused CARICOM to stagnate reaching a point that if it does not progress it will disintegrate.
So, in seeking to maintain control at a national level, this latest decision may be one that will weaken not strengthen CARICOM at a time when it needs to be stronger not weaker to preserve and promote economic and social development of the region’s people and to bargain for their interests in the international community.
It is worth pointing out that in all the recommendations that have been made for improved governance of CARICOM and for effective implementation of decisions, it has never been suggested that any government should relinquish sovereignty. Even the recommendation of the 1992 West Indian Commission for the establishment of a CARICOM Commission did not suggest a contraction of sovereignty.
What was recognised was that “CARICOM commitments must be binding commitments – morally, functionally, legally” and, therefore they must become “Community law” which is enforceable in each member state. And, these commitments are not to be made or approved by any organ other than CARICOM Heads of Government themselves.
In other words, it is the considered decisions of Heads of Government in council with each other that would become law and would be enforceable and implemented. It would not be the decisions of any other group whether they are called “CARICOM Commission” or “Permanent Committee of Ambassadors”.
What could possibly be wrong with such a system? Heads of government are most unlikely to make decisions that are legally binding on their countries unless they have studied them carefully with the advice of their Cabinets and their Attorneys-General. These decisions would have to show benefits for their countries individually and the region collectively.
Whatever organ implements them, however, must have the force of law at the national level or the same drift, the same failures to implement, the same promises made and not fulfilled will continue, and CARICOM will further decline losing any hope that it offered to the region’s people and any moral force it proffered in the region’s dealing with the international community.
The issue boils down to this: regional decisions have to become law enforceable in each state, or implementation will be held up by any one government that is unwilling to act.