What exactly is the meaning of a just society?
Attorney-at-law and Chair of the Sentencing Commission of Trinidad and Tobago Gregory Delzin sought to answer this question during a panel discussion organised by the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) on the theme Developing our capacity to build a just society.
Delzin said in his experience, justice is like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. He told persons gathered at Tuesday’s (February 18) discussion that he has never met an unsuccessful person in litigation who felt they got justice. He however encountered prisoners who were found guilty, sentenced and felt they got justice.
“The reason being, because they felt they were treated fairly. So, fairness and the sense of fairness and the access to a system that is geared to achieve that fairness is what really encourages a sense of justice,” Delzin said.
Delzin asserted that infrastructures and institutions created to provide a perception of access to justice “are useless”. He explained, “because the law is not meant simply to put persons in prison or to achieve a particular result. The law is there really as a means of regulating this deep yearning inside people to feel that there is a society where there is fairness.”
To speak of justice, one ought to really question why Trinidad and Tobago is not a just society.
Part of that reason, he said, is that persons do not speak about their own internal prejudices: some individuals view poor and young people as not deserving of the same rights to access justice.
“That’s the truth,” Delzin said. He added that society does not allow empathy to flow through to persons who suffer. To a large extent, persons also do not want to admit that that is “plain selfishness,” he said.
There is no reason for Trinidad and Tobago’s current prison system given the country’s wealth. Delzin however acknowledged that there was never any social or political “pressure” placed on anyone to change this because persons are of the view that others are less entitled to the benefits of society.
“That is the cultural prejudice. Some of it is based on our colonial past but that is the cultural prejudice that exists. And we don’t speak about it. And until we speak about it, it will not change,” he said.
Delzin shared he argued a case that persons in prison are entitled to better prison conditions. He said persons on death row spend 23-24 hours in a 6 by 7 ft cell with no access to light and exercise—a “regimen” “inherited” from the English when there was an active death penalty. He also argued that while in the past, persons were not supposed to be held on death row for more than seven days before execution, there are persons currently on death row for 10, 12 and even 15 years.
He revealed that he went before the Court of Appeal to suggest that those conditions were “cruel” and “unusual” punishment in accordance to the international standards.
According to Delzin, the Court of Appeal said “you can’t look at those international standards because each standard had to be looked at in the conditions of a particular society. And Trinidad and Tobago is not as developed as other societies.”
Therefore, the prison conditions in Trinidad and Tobago were good for the country, he surmised.
Another issue of injustice in society, is something Delzin said, persons do not talk about: hypocrisy. He explained that this country is a signatory to many international conventions that deal with human rights. Yet, when the country was faced with complaints before those international bodies, the country “withdrew” from treaty obligations.
“And the argument of Trinidad and Tobago was that the suffrage and domestic rights of Trinidad and Tobago are different from its international obligations….So we have this intrinsic dichotomy where you have constitutional rights…that you can’t marry against your international law obligations despite the existence of an assumption that you must interpret your domestic law to adhere to your international obligations. And yet in Trinidad and Tobago, we don’t.”
Ultimately, Delzin maintained when persons speak of a just society, the conversation has to start with honesty and the view that all must work to develop a society that encourages justice. Empathy, he said, is not something an institution can encourage or impart. Rather, empathy comes from a “deep philosophical” base of belief in self, the value and right of others to be respected by nothing more than their inherent value.
Other panellists were Madam Justice Donna Prowell-Raphael, Chair/Judge of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal; Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Dean, Faculty of Law, UWI, St Augustine Campus; Fr Arnold Francis, Parish Priest, Our Lady of Fatima; Charlene Pedro, Founder and CEO, Conventus Consultinc. Tuesday’s discussion which was held in observance of World Day of Social Justice (Thursday, February 20) was moderated by CCSJ Chair Leela Ramdeen.
By Kaelanne Jordan