Headline — 02 December 2017 — by Rowland A. Parks
$90 million debt “morally reprehensible”

So said Prime Minister Dean Barrow

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Nov. 29, 2017–Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow held a press conference this morning at the Best Western Biltmore Hotel, where the main topic on the agenda was the 90-million-dollar judgment handed down against the Government by Belize’s highest court, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

The judgment, which favored the Belize Bank over the government, is based on a sovereign guarantee for a loan from the Belize Bank to finance the Universal Health Services (UHS) that was secretly signed by then Prime Minister Said Musa in 2004.

The CCJ’s ruling placed the government on the hook for 90 million dollars, but the court stopped short of making an enforcement order, leaving it up to Belize’s legislators to vote in Parliament on whether or not to make the payment.

Amidst strident pronouncements by several members of Cabinet that the debt will not be paid, the Belize Bank commented on the Prime Minister’s and the Government of Belize’s position today. In its brief statement, the Bank said, “The Belize Bank does not concur with the views expressed by the Prime Minister and Government of Belize representatives at today’s press conference concerning the decision of the CCJ and the Bank’s ability to enforce payment of the LCIA Award. Time will tell whose interpretation of matters is the correct one.”

Before the Prime Minister made his presentation, Senator Godwin Hulse, who was the president of the Belize Chamber of Commerce at the time the loan guarantee was signed, presented at the press conference a chronological summary of the evolution of the UHS loan guarantee.

Following Senator Hulse’s presentation, Senator Carla Barnett, who was Financial Secretary when Prime Minister Musa signed the sovereign guarantee with the Belize Bank, explained that it was the discovery of Musa’s secret agreement that caused her to resign from the Musa administration.

Presently, at least 9 Cabinet ministers, speaking ahead of today’s press conference, insisted that they would not vote to make the payment to settle the CCJ’s judgment. Prime Minister Barrow, who is also Minister of Finance, will be tasked with putting the motion before the House of Representatives for parliamentarians to vote on, for settlement of the debt that he has characterized today as “morally reprehensible.”

Barrow said that the UDP members of the House of Representatives should vote their conscience.

Apart from the Supreme Court of Belize and the Belize Court of Appeal, which had both ruled against enforcement of the government’s sovereign guarantee to the bank, all other higher courts which have heard the case have ruled against the government, beginning with the UK’s Privy Council, which was once Belize’s highest court, the London Court of International Arbitration, the United States Supreme Court and now the CCJ.

Prime Minister Barrow told the packed press conference, which was attended by almost all Cabinet ministers and key supporters of the United Democratic Party, “Now we are confronted by this thunderbolt of a loss coming from the CCJ, the most unkind cut of all. The short question is, what happens now? I have kept personal silence since last Wednesday; I didn’t want to speak until I had carefully considered all the ramifications, done my own research, and sought legal advice. The first point to make is that while the bank won the case, the CCJ refused to make the particular order, or one particular order, that the bank sought.”

PM Barrow repeated that, “The court refused to do that, and it refused, in my view, principally for the reason that even the CCJ is not bigger than our constitution.  The CCJ is subject to the constitution of this country, and that constitution, as the CCJ recognized and accepted, is clear that no money can be taken out of our Consolidated Revenue Fund, out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of this country for any purpose, including to satisfy a judgment, unless that money has first been appropriated by parliament for this specific purpose. So, the Minister of Finance, the court clearly conceded, can only pay if parliament approves and authorizes that payment. And presumably, parliament would have to know where that money is to come from that it is to approve and appropriate if it so decides.”

“Furthermore, the court made it plain that there is a procedure to be followed under our Crown Proceedings Act. This is the law that speaks to the manner in which litigants who obtain judgments against the Crown, or governments, are to try to get their judgments satisfied. And, under that Crown Proceedings Act, even before reaching the stage where parliament can be asked to appropriate money to pay a judgment against the country, against the state, the party seeking payment must first wait at least twenty-one days after the judgment has been passed,” Barrow went on to say.

“Then, and only then, after the twenty-one days would have elapsed, can that party, in this case the bank, procure a certificate from the Registrar of the Supreme Court, not the CCJ, stating the amount that the judgment is for. That certificate is then served on the government,” said Barrow.

The Prime Minister then noted, “This government believes in the rule of law and though bitterly disappointed in the CCJ, we recognize the judgment that it has handed down. Accordingly, we will follow scrupulously the process set out by the CCJ, the Crown Proceedings Act, and the Constitution. That is, we will await the service of the certificate that the bank must procure from the Registrar after 21 days and then I will propose a supplementary appropriations bill to Parliament.

“What has to be made crystal clear, however, is that there is no certainty that such a bill will pass, and if it doesn’t pass, in my view, that is in no way in violation of the rule of law. The court, no doubt, expects the Parliament will vote yes, but the court can expect anything. What the court cannot do is to compel Parliament to vote in any particular way.

“Governments usually, which as a matter of honor and responsibility, pay debts … usually, but not invariably. And, when it comes to the particular matter of a law to provide for the payment of a judgment debt, which, though legally valid, is morally reprehensible, it is the essence of a country’s sovereignty and Parliament’s authority that a decision can be made not to approve the law, not to pay the bill.

“And in the absence of any vote from parliament, your judgment debt against the government and against the Crown runs the risk, in this case, I would say, the extremely high risk, of remaining unsatisfied, remaining unpaid.”

Barrow further remarked, “Our history in Belize is such that 9 times out of 10, 99 times out of a 100, without any difficulty at all, we will satisfy a judgment and we will pay a debt, but there is that 10th case and that 100th case, you see.

“So, it is my thesis, it is my case to you today, that there is a spectrum of perfectly supportable, indeed, compelling reasons, why our Parliament, when this matter comes to a vote, might or might not go a certain way.

“What I will tell you is that each member on the Government’s side of the House will be directed, when this bill is presented, to vote his or her conscience. So that conscience vote will apply equally to me, even though I am the one who is going to move the bill.”

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