OPINION: March 27 Migrant Drowning: No Inquiry, Zero Accountability, One Year Later

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room

The Prime Minister’s justification a year ago for blocking an inquiry in the wake of the Antigua Airways-Migrant Drowning scandal was that it did not appear to him and his aides that there was any criminal wrongdoing on anyone’s part.

His stance betrays either a genuine ignorance of the purpose of a public inquiry in a democratic society, or alternatively, that he is merely a deceitful man.

To have said that an inquiry is not necessary because it does not appear that there was any criminal wrongdoing is dumbfoundingly idiotic. It is.

It is idiotic for the simple reason that an inquiry is not a natural response to obvious evidence of criminal wrongdoing anyway. If you suspect that someone has acted criminally, you call the police and the DPP.

While an inquiry can uncover criminal wrongdoing and then hand over what it has found to law enforcement for further action, the main purpose of an inquiry has nothing to do with criminality.

Every elementary student of politics knows this. And it is why I say that Gaston Browne is either a fool or a liar.

What is a public inquiry?

In traditional parliamentary democracies, a public inquiry is at minimum, an official review ordered by a government body into events or actions. Different jurisdictions have different laws surrounding inquiries.

Inquires serve a number of functions. When those conducting the inquiry are independent, they can serve to avoid cover-ups by taking investigations out of the hands of those who were responsible for a gross failure in the first place.

In the UK, generally all public inquiries aim to avoid a repeat of whatever issue is being looked into. This is an important point.

Public inquiries into government failings specifically, also serve a political function, in that they can help restore confidence in public administration when a scandal or gross failure has seriously harmed the image of the government. However, summoning an inquiry is often a power that resides with the government of the day.

In practice, advocacy groups and opposition parties tend to ask for public inquiries for a variety of things and sitting governments typically only accede to a fraction of these requests. In some jurisdictions, governments hardly accede to any requests at all.

Since summoning an enquiry is often a political decision of the government of the day, there may have to be enormous public and political pressure on a government to call one of such a government is traditionally reluctant.

How much critical media attention is the issue receiving? Have members of the ruling party threatened to break ranks? Have civil society organisations come out against the government? Is the state under threat of sanction?

The other major political question that sitting governments ask is: How politically damaging are the findings likely to be? Are they likely to be so politically damaging that it would be less damaging to the administration, politically, to endure public criticism for not calling an inquiry.

Finally, enquiries do cost money. Sometimes, an inquiry’s cost might be weighed against its findings and it may be argued that not much was gained for the resources expended. However, in many places, sitting governments dismiss inquiries out of hand as being too costly to attempt regardless of the circumstances.

Should there have been an Inquiry?

Many people will answer that question depending on how they voted in the last election. But my simple answer is yes.

Remember that public inquiries are often convened on the simple basis that someone was reckless, irresponsible, or incompetent in doing their job – something we witness daily in Antigua and Barbuda.

There need not be evidence of criminal activity or the suspicion of criminal activity to justify calling an inquiry. For example, situations that may warrant an inquiry include overcontracting at statutory bodies or multiple issues creating a crisis at the hospital.

Members of the inquiry commission would seek to discover the nature of the failure, its impact, why it occurred, which parties are responsible, what steps ought to have been takento prevent the problem, whether everyone acted in accordance with their duty, whether the law governing the areas are adequate, etc.

In various countries, inquiries have been called into things such as sex scandals, deception from officials, unchecked spending in government departments, missed government targets, and failed programmes that were costly.

When the inquiries are done, people may be fired, reprimanded, or demoted. Departmental policies and leadership may change, and new laws may come into force to prevent a reoccurrence of what happened.

An inquiry into a sex scandal may lead to the firing of those involved, and the implementation of a departmental policy about preventing inappropriate relationships in the workplace.

An inquiry into wonton overspending in a department may lead to a change in leadership and the introduction of an oversight officer to police spending.

An inquiry into persistent losses at a government owned company may lead to the sacking of the board, and the implementation of new management polices and leadership selection criteria.

As stated, an inquiry does not hinge on there being a suspicion of criminal activity. There need only be a matter of public concern which would be well served with an official investigation that can provide clear and reliable conclusions on missteps and the necessary improvements to prevent a repeat.

Of the Antigua Airways saga, any right thinking citizen would be entitled to conclude that the government’s involvement in a botched airlift project that resulted in hundreds of migrants from a conflict zone being stranded in Antigua, and some of them later drowning while attempting further migration, would constitute a matter of public concern which would be well served with an official investigation.

Let us break the scandal down into four stages and ask some questions which an inquiry might have sought to answer.

Four Stages of Failure

Stage 1: Failure of Planning

Are there any clear, discernable criteria by which the government selects partners for joint enterprises?

Are there any criteria which seek to ensure that the investor is scrupulous, of good character, and has a proven record of success in the particular commercial field?

How was the investor introduced to the government in the first place?

Was it reasonable to have planned an association between this venture and the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP)?

Does the CIP not conduct its own diligence on businesses which it approves for investment? Did such a process occur wholly or in part in this instance?

Were there any restrictions placed on which nationalities would be allowed to enter?

What research was done by immigration on the risk associated with travellers from certain nations on the African continent?

Stage 2: Failure of Execution

Were any of the standard visa or entry practices waived, altered, or not adhered to?

When processing the migrants, did immigration properly execute its mandate under law and act in accordance with standard procedures?

How was the government’s decision making affected by its stakeholdership in the enterprise?

How was the government’s decision making affected by being both a facilitator/stakeholder, but also a regulator with the power to determine when and whether or not to halt flights?

How was the government’s decision making affected by the political imperatives of an ongoing election?

Did officials mislead the public at any point?

Did any officer of the government fail to execute their functions under law in relation to the operation of the charters?

Stage 3: Failure to Respond to the Arrival of the Migrants

Having halted flights, to what extent did the government take adequate steps to trace, identify, and monitor the movements of the people in question?

To what extent did the government take adequate steps to register the migrants, afford them legal advice, supervise their work status, and assist them with other needs?

To what extent did the government take adequate steps to inform the migrants of its purported intention to facilitate and promote their integration into society?

To what extent did the government make an adequate effort to interview the migrants and assess the nature of their circumstances?

Stage 4: Failure to Respond After the Drownings

To what extent did the government take adequate steps to establish the identities of the dead following the drowning?

To what extent did the government take steps to facilitate communication with the families of the deceased?

To what extent did the government take steps to demonstrate due compassion and regard for the mass loss of human life?

To what extent did the government continue to track and monitor remaining migrants in Antigua and Barbuda?

To what extent did the government adequately communicate with the public throughout this period?

Answer those questions for yourself, and you will realise just how inept, callous, and dishonest the entire handling of this nonsensical and deadly fiasco was from its beginning to its end.

Gaston Browne said that he was satisfied there was no evidence that anyone in his administration engaged in any wrongdoing, and therefore he saw no need to have an inquiry.

He maintained that both the government and the Nigerian investor with whom it partnered in the Antigua Airways venture were victims of a third party, a tour operator called HiFly, who used the charters to book travellers under false pretenses.

But he refused to answer for his abhorrent recklessness and that of his government in concocting this slapdash scheme in the first place by partnering with some no-one’s-heard-of-you and never-to-be-seen-again investor, evidently with inadequate planning, and a dangerously inept response to the problems that unfolded.

You do not have to have acted criminally to be guilty of recklessness, lawlessness, incompetence, and of acting in a manner unworthy public office. The Prime Minister knew that.

He knew that any credible inquiry would have laid bare the extent of the government’s compound failures. And he knew that the political embarrassment would have been staggering.

The blame is to be laid squarely at the foot of the Gaston Browne. He refused an independent inquiry that might have otherwise apportioned blame for all the bad decisions that many made along the way. Accordingly, he should keep the blame all to himself. Zero accountability.

Ernest J. Farfingbottom








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