Private View by Peter Kenilorea Jr (MP)
‘Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society – once the right to travel is curtailed all other rights suffer’.
This quote by the American Jurist and Politician, William O Douglas, succinctly captures the concerns that I and many others have been raising with regards to the recent 36hr ‘lockdown’ that Honiara citizens were subjected to on 20-22 May.
The lockdown order, which emanated from the powers derived from the state of emergency currently in effect in Solomon Islands, directly impacted the core of a freedom that we, as free Solomon Islanders, enjoy everyday – freedom of movement. The protection of the freedom of movement is enshrined in section 14 of the National Constitution of Solomon Islands – the supreme law of the country. It is a fundamental right and the government is duty bound to protect it.
It is accepted that the state of emergency declaration, currently in effect, and the promulgation of regulations flowing from the declaration does allow for the limitation of this freedom and curtail its application. But such curtailing must not be done without proper and serious consideration. Such curtailing must be reasonably justifiable. It must be a necessity. It must be proportionate. And it must be for a defined period.
The aforementioned criterion include those prescribed in our national constitution. They are also derived from human rights conventions, including the convention on civil and political rights, to which Solomon Islands is a party. These criterion are also outlined in guidelines provided by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights encouraging UN member to adhere to these guidelines during this covid-19 pandemic.
In my observation, nothing on the effective dates of the lockdown warranted the curtailing of the freedom of movement. The reasons given by the government which included, sweeping statements such as: we are fighting covid-19 together or we need to curtail the freedom of movement to test our readiness or preparedness by running simulations; are, in my view, not valid enough reasons for authorities to curtail this fundamental right – even for one minute, let alone 36hrs.
In the context of the current covid world, the curtailing of the right of freedom of movement has been employed by other democratic societies as the ultimate ‘social distancing’ measure, to curb infection rates. Medical experts have advised that the virus spreads through droplets including through, coughing, sneezing, and spitting.
Disrupting the spread of the virus through social distancing or keeping a safe distance in public interactions has proven to be an effective measure in slowing down infections around the world.
And yet, despite this knowledge, currently no proper and effective enforcement of public social distancing has been occurring on our shores and in Honiara in particular. Instead, certain orders have actually encouraged even closer social interaction in larger crowds, which is the exact opposite of the objective. Satellite markets and street vendors have been shutdown in the name of effecting social distancing. Yet other shops in the city remain open, which sends mixed signals to the public on the implementation of social distancing measures.
Efforts should be concentrated more towards enforcing social distancing in public places first. By all accounts, this, along with regular hand washing, and personal hygiene, have been the best weapons for combating covid-19. A lockdown and the suspension of the right of freedom of movement should be the ultimate final step to enforce social distancing. Yet we are already locking down for no reason while social distancing in public is no where near being effectively enforced. And I continue to espouse that our borders are still our weakest link. Proper support and quarantine protocols need to be strictly enforced.
At the time of the ‘lockdown’ period (and still now), not a single positive case of covid-19 has been recorded in the country. Yet our constitutional right to freedom of movement was suspended. Tough penalties were imposed to enforce the suspension of this freedom. The penalties were so harsh that the lockdown was more like house arrest. The vulnerable and marginalized suffered unnecessarily. All this without a single recorded case of covid-19.
Suspending our freedom of movement should not be done just to ‘learn lessons’.
Our authorities should think very seriously before they start curtailing our fundamental freedoms. Covid-19 should not be used as a cover to deliberately trample over fundamental rights that are guaranteed by our constitution for all freedom loving Solomon Islanders. Indeed, it follows that the freedom of expression should not be curtailed as well at this time.
In writing this piece, I am exercising my freedom of expression to caution the government against curtailing the freedom of movement. Curtailing this freedom simply for you to test run or simulate your level of preparedness is no where near a good enough reason to take away my right to freedom of movement for 36hrs.
As a free nation, one built on democratic principles where government is installed and governs through and by the consent of the people, there is a duty by the government to the people it governs to ensure that the people’s fundamental freedoms are preserved and protected. These fundamental freedoms are the bedrock of our free society.
In an open letter to us Solomon Islands leaders dated 11 May, 2020, the Premier of Malaita reminded us of the need to adhere to the rule of law as a free society. He also reminded us of our duty, as leaders, to uphold democratic principles.
The Premier’s call is timely. Especially in the context of our handling of the covid-19 situation where the temptation to project power and overstep legal boundaries is more pronounced. As leaders, we should ensure that public health measures are not used to override fundamental freedoms just because.
Our young nation is founded on values that include tolerance and respect which acknowledges our traditional heritage and our cultural diversity. We, as a young democratic nation, should also acknowledge that while democracy has its flaws and while there might be different interpretations of it, it is essentially all about government of the people, by the people, for the people. That even with its flaws, democracy is still the governance system of choice for the progress of a modern Solomon Islands.
The issues that I have touched upon are not ‘petty politics’. They are part and parcel of the essence of what and who we are as a nation. The protection of the fundamental freedoms in our constitution are the fabric that are interwoven into our collective national consciousness that we embrace as a free people. These fundamental freedoms enrich our lives as citizens of a free society, even in times like these, or especially at times like these, when we face an uncertain future.
As national leaders, bearers of the duty to ensure that the fundamental freedoms of all citizens (the right holders) of our beloved nation are protected, it is our responsibility to ensure that these freedoms are upheld at all times. Let us resist the temptation to wield unbridled power during these uncertain times. Let us uphold our dual responsibilities to protect our people from covid-19 and protect the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed by our constitution.
Let us agree that any decisions to curtail the freedom of movement are done with the seriousness and solemnity it demands. Because the curtailing of the freedom of movement will lead to the suffering of other fundamental freedoms which in turn undermines the foundation upon which our democratic country rests.
God Save our Solomon Islands from Shore to Shore.