(Excerpts of Dr. Godwin Friday’s National Address on Combatting Crime, December 2022)
I think we can all agree that one of the most pressing problems we face today is the epidemic of crime sweeping our country. Crime affects everyone, directly or indirectly. When our safety and peace of mind are undermined, it affects us profoundly.
The first duty of any government is to protect the lives and livelihoods of its people. Over the last year, we have seen crime become more prevalent in our communities and on our streets. This year is one of the most violent in recent memory and we are not far from the 2016 record of forty (40) murders in a year.
The Gonsalves government has overseen one of the worst periods of our history and worryingly they offer no hope of an end in sight. The number of homicides so far this year stands at 37. Most have been victims of gun violence, and there were other gun-related crimes that did not result in death. All are profoundly serious matters for our country.
SVG’s current murder rate is over 36 per 100,000 and is among the worst in the OECS. My friends, you and I know that this is a crisis. The only people who seem to think otherwise are those in the government. Instead of tackling the problem and proposing solutions, the Prime Minister/Minister of National Security, appears to dismiss the alarming upsurge in violent crime with statements that young males have a “fascination with guns” and that the youth should “live in the real world and not the one they see on social media or films”. Such casual remarks fail to appreciate the gravity of the problem and fail to assure the community that help is on the way.
Law enforcement personnel feel unsupported and demoralized. They are denied the tools to fight crime effectively. Also, there are credible reports of commendable efforts in investigating crimes being thwarted by undermining interventions. Simply put, criminals have been literally getting away with murder. They no longer fear being caught and being punished. Reversing this requires tough choices and a willingness to be decisive and determined in combatting crime. It requires most importantly understanding the real world in which young people have been living over the past two decades of this government.
We note, for example, that unemployment is extremely high. In June this year, the World Bank reported that our youth unemployment is a staggering 41% of persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. This rate exceeds our neighbours in St. Lucia (38.7%), Barbados (30.6%) and Trinidad & Tobago (12.7%) and far exceeds the average for Caribbean small states of just over 25%.
We further note that poverty has gotten worse. As governments before had done, the present government commissioned an assessment of poverty in SVG. The report of that study, for the period 2008-2018, has still not been released by the government. But we obtained the report and made it public. The damning evidence was that poverty in this country has gotten worse over that period of the ULP government, moving from 30.2% of the population in 2008 to over 36% in 2018! In some communities, the situation worsened dramatically.
Against this backdrop, criminality continues to project an emboldened face in our society. Coming out of a spate of shootings earlier this year, there were reports of individuals associated with known gangs threatening to take justice into their own hands, night or day and in any place they chose.
Though the powers that be dismiss these threats and incidents as being restricted to a small group of people, recent events bring home to us this stark reality: anyone at any time can be collateral damage in these reckless shootouts. The hail of bullets that several weeks ago resulted in the deaths of two young men and wounding of several others in the Kingstown area shows that the problem is getting worse not better, and the risk to everyone is growing. So, the youngster enjoying a football game at the park; the nurse out for an evening with friends; the labourer going home after a hard day’s work, the worshipper picking up groceries after church: none can take their surroundings for granted. Unfortunately, any of them could become an unintended victim because stray bullets don’t know who they hit and don’t care who they kill.
The Better Way
My friends, it does not have to be that way. As a country of God-fearing people, we are better than that and we do not have to accept living that way. But government must act to make it better. However, the present government does not have the will, the moral authority, nor the competence to tackle the problem. They lack ideas and, therefore, lack solutions.
There is a better, more hopeful alternative that will improve life for our people and make SVG a beacon of good governance. We have called for effective means to fight crime, not merely with words but with a clear plan to action, which we will implement as soon as we replace this failed government. To be effective, we must understand what gives rise to crime, then develop strategies and programs to address the problem.
Accordingly, we call for the implementation of the following measures: We must focus on Crime Prevention. Remember, an ounce of prevention is still better than a pound of cure. We should therefore invest heavily upfront, on crime prevention. In this regard, the programmes outlined in the NDP’s Spiritual and Social Redemption Charter should be implemented. The Charter promotes positive community-oriented programs that would steer vulnerable young people away from crime towards socially positive behaviour.
We must restore trust and confidence in the police and the criminal justice system. Trust in the system now is shaken and broken. Political connections should not shield anyone involved in a shooting, theft, domestic violence or other crimes from proper investigation and prosecution. Justice must be equal for all.