One of the moral principles that govern most of the civilised world is the principle of the “right to life.” The United States of America’s “Declaration of Independence” captures this concept in beautiful prose which reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here in Guyana, Article 138 (1) of our Constitution speaks to the protection of this “right to life” in the following manner, “No person shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of an offense under the law of Guyana of which he has been convicted.” All this sums up quite neatly the fact that life is something to be respected and highly regarded, whether it is one’s own life, or that of another. It is inalienable, and thus illegal even for the individual to take his own life or to require another to do so. It is clear then that, outside of the remedies within the justice system, no one can attempt to or cause the death of another in the normal course of life without facing usually fearful consequences.
This legal and moral foundational construct that is expected to guide life in general has seemed to develop quite a serious disconnect here in Guyana, a land of only three quarters of a million people. To consider that a country with such a small population should have a seeming careless disregard for life does boggle the mind somewhat. At issue here is the tendency for citizens to be involved in avoidable conduct which can easily cause the loss of life, and while this includes murder and other deliberate killings, it also is related to road accidents, work related accidents (occupational health and safety breaches), and medical mistakes and malpractice.
It is perhaps a curious aspect of our national psyche that deaths considered “unintentional” occurring as a result of “normal” actions of the perpetrator, such as driving, working in a mine pit, or even delivering various classes of medical treatment, can easily be swept under the rug or subjected to a lower quality of investigation than might obtain for more violent crime without risking much in terms of a public outcry. However, in the United States and other countries the concept of “reckless endangerment” is well known and informs many investigations into “unintentional deaths.” Helpless babies and small children left to suffocate in locked cars are one example of an act of “reckless endangerment,” and in the US 37 children on average die in this way each year.
While “accidents do happen” might be the response of many to these incidents of unintended deaths, what seems lacking in Guyana is a philosophical understanding of the responsibility of each individual and each legal entity to not endanger the right to life of another through careless and thoughtless actions. The lack of remorse or change in the behaviour of many culprits of causing accidental deaths is another indication of a need for a national discourse to thrust this issue directly into the cerebral cortex of unthinking and uncaring Guyanese.
Workplace Health and Safety is one of the most critical factors affecting businesses in the advanced nations, and Guyana is beginning to learn of its importance through the new Oil & Gas sector. Nevertheless, there have been countless preventable deaths (and possibly scores of unreported injuries) in the mining sector due to non-compliance with very basic safety guidelines. Accidental deaths through mining pit collapses each year are now par for the course and in December 2018, the death of an 11-year-old in this manner, hardly caused any ripples in the sea of hardened unconcern for life in which this nation has been set adrift.
Much more recently too, we reported on the vicious cutlass attack which a man launched on his common law wife while he was being served with a protection order by a female Rural Constable. The resort to the extreme measure of killing someone for the perceived slight is also symptomatic of the disregard for life that pervades this land, being seen most dramatically in family-based violence. However, the nonchalance of the authorities such as the police and other state agencies in executing their responsibility to protect the lives of citizens is also damning evidence of the despairing depths of disregard for life to which we as a nation have plummeted. In the case in question, the perpetrator of the cutlass attack remains at large weeks after the incident in which the Rural Constable fled for her life and could easily have been a victim herself if not fleet of foot, readily discarding any pretence to providing protection for the helpless victim.
The Guyana Police Force (GPF) is apparently aware that the perpetrator in this case has since allegedly threatened to kill the mother of the victim and remains at large. With an attempted murder under his belt and allegedly threatening another person with murder, a reasonable person might be forgiven for thinking that the GPF would throw significant resources into apprehending the fugitive, but the victim and her relatives appear convinced that the GPF is not doing enough. The “right to life” principle cannot be selectively applied throughout the broad spectrum of everyday life, it must be widespread and infiltrate all our institutions and educate our individuals. It is possible that the Occupational Health and Safety compliance regime may present the greatest opportunity for instilling the kind of regard for human life and safety that should fill our collective consciousness and transform our society.