PM: Govt. must balance civil liberties with order

PM: Govt. must balance civil liberties with order
Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis gestures during his contribution to debate on the disaster bill during a previous session. (photo credit: BIS)

Parliament expected to vote on bill Wednesday

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis yesterday said every society must balance freedom and liberty with order and the “duty to protect human life” as he defended far-reaching provisions in the proposed disaster bill.

Minnis wrapped up debate on the Disaster Preparedness and Response Bill, 2019, and the Lower House is expected to vote today.

He stressed the proposed legislation that allows the government to imprison residents who fail to heed evacuation orders, will ensure no unnecessary loss of life.

“Mr. Speaker, when storms come and there is a significant threat to life, we want Bahamians to move away from dangerous areas and to seek shelter in safer places,” he said.

“This is the compelling, clear and simple purpose of the evacuation orders. Evacuation orders are commonplace around the world in times of natural disaster. They make sense. Such orders save lives. To stay on the coast; to remain in low-lying areas or to remain in poorly constructed dwelling places could lead to unnecessary deaths. With these orders we want Bahamians and residents to know that a life-threatening event is possible and you should move to preserve life and to stay alive.”

According to a bill, those who fail to heed an evacuation order within a specified area, island or cay “without justifiable cause to evacuate” — commits an offense liable to a term of imprisonment of one month and/or a fine not exceeding $500.

In instances where refusal to adhere to the evacuation order is likely to imperil the life of another, imprisonment for three months and/or a fine not exceeding $1,000.

If passed, the bill will also authorize the government to impose curfews and prohibit travel in areas declared mandatory evacuation zones.

It would also prohibit the movement of anyone within a specified area when necessary.

The opposition has said it will oppose the bill, making the case there are provision in the constitution that permit the suspension of civil liberties. Civil liberties may be suspended through a proclamation of emergency by the governor general during specific circumstances, such as times of war.

Yesterday, Minnis acknowledged there are reservations over the amendments.

He said: “Some fear change. However, we must press forward and begin the process to reform disaster preparedness and response in our country. The Bahamian people elected the Free National Movement to govern and to make fundamental changes in order to modernize and to transform our country for the better. As difficult as change often is we must govern in the best interest of current and future generations. We must lead and we will.”

Following the storm, additional officers were deployed to Abaco and Grand Bahama amid reports of theft and other “security concerns”.

Minnis noted the legislation contains provisions for additional security tools at the government’s disposal, including curfews and temporary restrictions on movement in the aftermath of disasters.

“Such curfews are commonplace across the world in the aftermath of natural disasters,” he said.

“It is shocking that anyone interested in protecting and saving human life would be opposed to such temporary measures. Law and order are fragile things in human societies. When they breakdown, they are often difficult to restore.”

He said: “It is shocking that anyone interested in protecting and saving human life would be opposed to such temporary measures”

Ahead of Dorian, Minnis made multiple appeals for residents in impacted zones of Abaco and Grand Bahama to evacuate their homes. Numerous residents did not adhere to the warnings.

Minnis committed to the legislation in opposition. He promised to introduce the legislation following Hurricane Irma in 2017, but did not.

During his last term, Prime Minister Perry Christie promised to introduce mandatory evacuation legislation.

Following Dorian, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham questioned the effectiveness of such a measure and the government’s ability to enforce it.

Ingraham also stressed the government needs to build dedicated shelters to house residents who evacuate.