The furore which erupted last week when the Upper House met to debate the Customs Control & Management Act 2012 was a surprise – which came out of left field and is quite puzzling – to say the least.
In some quarters it has been mooted that the change from the Senate being perceived as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Lower House, is a good and welcome sign, that it is business unusual here in our neck of the woods.
Indeed, the sight and sounds of a government senator lambasting his own party in the strongest of terms, for bringing this “most draconian” bit of legislation to the House was something to behold.
Dissension is not exactly unheard of in the Senate, but this kind of friendly fire is most rare, especially using the kind of language we would associate with those on the opposite side of the aisle. Thus it begs the question: Is there more in the mortar than the pestle?
So contentious has the Bill become that the leader of government business opted to put it to a select committee of the House for clarification, with the instruction to submit their recommendations as soon as possible.
In the aftermath of the wrangle, we learnt that the proposed legislation is Antigua & Barbuda’s attempt to meet international trade obligations and best practices, specifically the International Convention on Simplification and Harmonisation of Customs Procedures. The intended law is also our country’s way of fulfilling regional obligations under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas.
Surprise, surprise, the Bill has nothing to do with government seeking to give more power to Customs officials, by allowing them to carry weapons. To hear it being told, it would appear that overnight customs officials would be trigger-happy, Wild West types, driving fear into the heart of the populace.
It is a non sequitur to say that this country does not exist in a vacuum. We are party to many conventions for which we have failed to put the necessary mechanisms in place for ratification. If, this once, we did what we ought, one would have expected automatic compliance from every quarter, especially from members of the ruling administration.
In many parts of the world, countries place paramount importance on the protection of their borders. In the United States, Customs and Border Control gets highest priority. The people selected to work in this sphere are highly trained. They know their work is integral to the safety and security of their nation and its people.
Here in Antigua and Barbuda we have assigned a limited role for our Customs officials. We tend to think of them as those people whom we try to get the better of when we have taxable merchandise on entering from shopping trips abroad.
The role of a Customs agent is much greater. It ought to extend into the protection of the country’s borders from all and everything illegal. This includes those who traffic humans, firearms or drugs.
This country has been described as having porous borders. Our 365 beaches are not only good for tourism, but are also ideal for people who wish to traffic in undesirables.
It is no secret that this country is awash with guns. Every two-bit wannabee and his sidekick have access to firearms, in addition to the big wigs who deal in death and contraband. Hardly a day goes by that this paper does not carry stories of young people terrorising law-abiding citizens with guns. This country does not manufacture weapons. They must be entering our shores by some method. We can all but rule out by air. Therefore, it must be by sea.
Is it not foolhardy to expect Customs officials whose job it is to inspect cargo to appear with only pen and paper when some of their inspections are done at odd hours? We know the gun runners will be armed, so why not the people who are going to protect us from them?
Then, too, as the minister piloting the Bill was forced to point out, the legislation dates back to 1993 with only a few pieces being new – the provision for armed Customs officers not being one of the new bits.
But even if it were so, a country’s legislative agenda ought to be guided by the realities of the day. Twenty-first century problems need 21st century legislation. The fact is, the type of situations, which confronted officers 20 years ago, would be different to those one would encounter today.
In spite of the sound and fury, this particular law does have merit. There can be no harm in having another look at its tenets, but the fact that it is being guided by convention and best practices puts it in the realm of good law.