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Remarks by Hon Philip Davis, KC, MP, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas and Chairman of CARICOM, at the Opening Ceremony of the Regional Symposium: Violence as a Public Health Issue – The Crime Challenge, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, 17 April 2023

Good Morning All,

I wish to thank you Prime Minister Rowley for graciously hosting us all today for such an important discussion. Thank you, as well, to all heads of government and representatives who have joined us.

We have gathered here due to a shared concern about the escalating rates of violence being experienced by member states. This symposium provides us with an opportunity to hold an in-depth discussion about what we can do as a region to develop a holistic approach to violence reduction.

There are so many things we love about this Caribbean. Our friendly people and rich cultures are a source of great pride. Millions of travellers from around the world visit us each year just to experience a slice of paradise. We are rightly proud of who we are and the very special places we call home.

No matter where we are in the world, we carry our national and regional pride with us. Our identities have been uniquely shaped by a composite of cultural experiences that make us whole.

Because we love our countries so much, it can be difficult to accept that all of this beauty and joy can coexist with such unprecedented violence.

An epidemic of violence grips our region, one that claims lives and generates fear and anger.

In 2022, Jamaica had a staggering homicide rate of 52.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, Trinidad and Tobago had a rate of 39.4 per 100,000, and The Bahamas, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines all recorded homicide rates above 30 per 100,000. This is over five times the global average.

Millions of people throughout the region live in crime hotspots, never knowing if they will be a victim on any given day. In The Bahamas, I have sought to bring comfort to mothers and their families who have lost their sons and daughters; and I know many of you have done the same for your people.

Violence spreads like a virus, gaining momentum as one violent crime begets another.

In fact, there is a substantial history of analyzing patterns of violent crime using many of the same references used in epidemiology.

Violence is contagious, and those who map the commission of violent crimes find that their data mirrors the spread of infectious diseases within a community. Violence can strike in waves and can grow exponentially. Those who come in close contact with violence are most likely to spread it and most likely to fall victim to it.

CARICOM has embraced the view of violence as a public health crisis, requiring comprehensive interventions to battle an epidemic that has claimed far too many lives.

As we would with any public health crisis, we must define and monitor the problems, identify the risks and protective factors, and develop mitigation and prevention strategies to halt the epidemic.

The discussions we will have throughout this symposium will deepen our understanding and provide us with a foundation from which holistic strategies can be developed. There are already many innovative public and non-profit programmes with established track records of success throughout the region. We must continue learning from one another and

collaboratively develop data-based violence reduction models.

I know I don’t have to persuade any of you about the urgency of this work. On a typical day, some estimates suggest that an average of 13 young adults between the ages of 16 to 30 lose their lives to violent crime in our region.

Each day that passes is another day in which lives are ended, families are broken by grief and loss, and our communities threatened. We need to mobilize resources with the same determination we would bring to fighting any other life-threatening epidemic.

We know that the battle is a complex one. There is a tangle of social, economic, and environmental factors at the heart of this crisis. During these two days of deliberation we must find the resolve to untangle these layered issues.

It is not merely a policing or legislative problem. Nor is it solely the domain of the courts. While better laws and expanded police capacity are important elements of a successful strategy, we need all hands on deck: parents, social workers, educators, rehabilitation specialists, social scientists, community workers and activists, mental health professionals, religious leaders, and many others must come together to address this pervasive issue.

Later today, we will hear from Dr. David Allen, a renowned Bahamian psychiatrist who was instrumental in expanding the international understanding of the cocaine and crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s, which many see as a precursor to the violence we are experiencing today.

In his most recent research, he has linked the physical and sexual abuse of children to physical, mental, and sociological illnesses later in life. Many of these children grow up to be the perpetrators and victims of further violence. Dr. David Allen concludes in his research that an abused child becomes a dangerous adult.

Addressing violent crime requires us to confront these ugly truths about the harm damaged and broken people can carry forward, from generation to generation.

But we can’t look away.

We need to interrupt these cycles of violence. And I believe each of us have valuable perspectives, strengths, and insights to contribute to a more effective set of crime-fighting strategies.

Interagency cooperation and regional cooperation are absolutely necessary to address the problem of violence, which exists at the intersection of so many other issues in our countries.

CARICOM is committed to fighting violent crime in all forms. There must be zero tolerance for violence against women and children. And there must be more outreach to – and support for – our at-risk young men. There is considerable research suggesting that a young man who makes it to adulthood without committing a crime, is far less likely to become a criminal. Given this trend, it is critical that we provide more support for our boys in their transition to manhood to keep them on a productive and peaceful path.

Our most at-risk and vulnerable populations require interventions to meet them where they are – in their homes, communities, churches, and schools – to make a real, meaningful impact.

The recent CARIFTA games were an excellent example of what our young people can accomplish when given positive avenues for self exploration and achievement. Recreational, educational, social, and career-related outreach are all needed to appeal to our youth and shield them from the recruitment tactics of neighborhood gangs and drug dealers.

We must dedicate resources to collecting data and better understanding crime at the community level to develop more responsive interventions, and we must allocate resources to address the social and economic causes of violence.

Violence may be occurring in our communities, but the guns used in approximately 70% of violent crimes do not originate in our countries.

We do not manufacture guns in the Caribbean. Every gun used to commit a crime in the Caribbean is smuggled into our countries. In The Bahamas, 98.6% of all recovered illegal firearms can be traced directly to the United States. In Haiti, 87.7% of all recovered firearms can be traced likewise. In Jamaica, it amounts to 67% of all recovered firearms and here in Trinidad and Tobago it amounts to 52%.

We have asked the US government and US-based gun manufacturers to cooperate with CARICOM member states when it comes to identifying weapons purchased in the US, as a part of a wider effort to hold weapons dealers and traffickers accountable for the many lives lost to gun violence each year. We must call on our neighbours to the north to better police the trafficking of guns from the US to the Caribbean.

Last month, The Bahamas, along with Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico, working along with the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Human Security, jointly filed a brief in the United States Court of Appeal in support of a $10 billion lawsuit to hold US gun manufacturers liable for the destruction American-made guns have caused in our countries. It was an action initiated by the Mexican government. We intend to challenge the laws that previously protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits.

We are sending a clear message to the world that we are very serious about fighting gun violence in all forms and on all fronts, not just the home front.

CARICOM’s commitment to regional security is clear. I know that we are here today because we share a determination to work together in unprecedented ways for the good of the region.

A powerful example of the strength of a united region could be seen in October 2022, when 19 Caribbean countries participated in a joint operation with INTERPOL in which 350 weapons, 3,300 rounds of ammunition, 10 tons of cocaine, and two and a half tons of marijuana were intercepted. 510 arrests were made as a result.

Such collaborative operations must become more frequent if we want to meaningfully impact the flow of illegal drugs and guns across our borders.

The CARICOM Crime and Gun Intelligence Unit was created to strengthen Caribbean and US collaboration in using data and technology to intercept illegal firearms and traffickers. We must fully leverage this partnership, so that those who put guns on our streets are stopped – and brought to justice. The need to reduce violent crime has never been more urgent. Each year, hundreds of lives are at stake and many more affected by the resulting trauma. This moment of crisis for our region requires a collective response.

The impact of violence goes beyond personal loss, as terrible as that is. High levels of sustained violence undermine investor confidence in the region, scare visitors away from tourism-dependent economies, and place a strain on healthcare, educational, and social support systems. If we do not act decisively, our economic prospects will be further eroded by this ongoing wave of violence. As we come together to take on our individual challenges, let us not forget the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Haiti and the need to work together with the Haitian people to stabilize their situation. What happens in Haiti has implications for the entire region, and CARICOM has a duty to provide support in whatever ways we can.

I am hopeful that the discussions we initiate today will serve as a launching pad for the development of impactful interventions and solutions. There are no quick fixes; yet, we must act quickly to save our people from this epidemic. Each day that goes by, precious lives are lost. We can take steps toward reversing that trend starting today. By facing this crisis head-on and leveraging the unique resources and expertise of each member state, we can make a lasting, positive impact on the lives of our citizens and ensure a brighter future for our Caribbean region. —


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