Warner — and his junior minister Colin Partap — made a show of being at the site, crossing arms and taking in abuse from the protesters. Warner said he called out the Chief of Defence Staff, Brigadier Kenrick Maharaj, and Deputy Police Commissioner, Mervyn Richardson, to the site.
Questions have been raised over the blurring of the lines marking the separation of powers, amid fears of the police becoming politicised. Yet, is Warner not entitled to report an instance of alleged law-breaking to the police? He cannot tell the police what to do, but surely he can report an instance of persons trespassing on State lands.
What about the calling out of the Defence Force? A look at the Defence Act shows Warner is empowered to give any “special or general directions” to the Chief of Defence Staff — Section 191 (2). The Chief of Defence Staff, who is appointed by the President, is therefore subject to executive ministerial directive by Parliament’s law. This point has been missed in all the talk of separation of powers.
If we assume no law or principle has been broken, we are left to wonder where Warner has erred or if he has erred at all. Perhaps the answer lies in his choice of calling out both the police and army. Was this a proportionate exercise of whatever power he has?
To answer the question of proportionality, we may look at the apparent lack of any involvement in this “demolition” by the Commissioner for State Lands, the person who, by law, “shall have the management of all lands of the State and shall be charged with the prevention of squatting and encroachment upon the same.” The Commissioner acts on behalf of the President, not the Cabinet. And there is a clear process under the State Lands Act to deal with persons trespassing on State lands.
At last week’s post-Cabinet press briefing, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan argued the protesters were not squatters. But according to Section 20 of the act, a squatter is understood to be anybody in possession of land without any probable claim or pretence of title. Perhaps the process should have been handled via the Commissioner or with the authorisation of a magistrate and not a Cabinet minister.
The question of proportionality is further deepened when we ask: how was the protest site a risk to national security? How did it come to fall within Warner’s remit as opposed to the Commissioner’s? Warner may have certain legal powers, but he has created the spectre of a possible abuse of power. Did he go too far? The impression left by his presence on the site is unsavoury and has handed the protesters a publicity coup and exposed his office to disrepute.