BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan 7, 2016–CARICOM Secretary-General, Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, arrived in Belize this Tuesday, January 5, to meet with Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who assumed the rotating chairmanship of CARICOM on January 1, and to discuss with him plans for the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting due to be held in Placencia, Stann Creek, on February 16 and 17.
Upon his arrival, LaRocque found that there had been a legal dispute between the Customs Department and Jitendra Chawla, a Belizean importer whose three containers of Guyanese rice valued at roughly BZ$70,000, had been blocked at the port of entry, on the claim that he had not obtained the requisite importer’s permit.
Speaking with journalists today outside the headquarters of the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM), where LaRocque had paid a courtesy call on the regional organization, the CARICOM Secretary-General was very cautious about passing judgment on the situation.
He was adamant, though, that sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues, which govern the safety and health standards of food imports “cannot and ought not to be used as a protective mechanism and [permits] ought not to be withheld based on protecting a particular sector…”
We asked LaRocque what his vision is for the resolution of the dispute, which has been ongoing for several weeks now and which is currently tied up in litigation in Belize courts.
“I hope that the parties can find a solution to this and if they can’t, there is a process—again, I am not seized of all of the details and I am being extremely cautious—there is a general process when there is a trading issue that takes place: how do you go about addressing it?
“In this instance… from what I have gleaned from the public domain, from what I read in the media, it is an SPS issue, and hence it is not necessarily a trade dispute in that realm. Again, I am being very cautious; I do not know the full details…”
LaRocque said that the SPS rules and procedures are set by the World Trade Organization. He also said that while lesser developed CARICOM countries such as Belize and OECS countries, can seek protection for certain sectors, that protection is sought by levying tariffs—not by blocking imports.
“Once that hurdle is cleared for future imports, that there is no health impediment, be it to human health or plant, one would have to determine on what basis should such a permit be withheld,” LaRocque said.
He declined to comment on whether the matter could be a case for the Caribbean Court of Justice – an organ of CARICOM which has the jurisdiction to hear trade disputes between member states.
LaRocque told the press that while in Belize, he also paid a courtesy call on the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center (CCCCC or 5Cs), another regional agency based in Belize.
The CARICOM Secretary-General acknowledged the contribution made by CCCCC on behalf of CARICOM in achieving a successful outcome at the milestone COP 21 conference recently held in Paris.
“CARICOM is here ever present in Belize every single day, working on behalf of the Community and working on behalf of Belize,” LaRocque told the press.