The Government is expected to file its defense this week in the case of Oceana, Audrey Marie Bradley and Tom Greenwood against the Governor-General and the Chief Elections Officer. The claimants are challenging Government’s decision to not convene a national offshore drilling referendum after Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai rejected roughly 8,000 signatures on petition — amounting to 40% of the signatures. The Government subsequently took the position that the required 10% of voters needed to mandate the poll had not signed on.
It could be months before this court case gets to hearing, but inside her Chambers this morning, Supreme Court Justice Michelle Arana held a case management session with attorneys from both sides, setting an agenda for the filing of affidavits and other important documents.
Government, which was previously represented by counsel from the Attorney General’s Ministry, has now retained private counsel to defend its case. Naima Barrow, niece of Prime Minister Dean Barrow and counsel from the Barrow & Co law firm, is holding brief for the Government, while ex-Attorney General Godfrey Smith, SC, continues to be retained by the claimants.
Vice President of Oceana in Belize, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, said Government will be making a bid to have the case struck out on the basis that certain documents were not filed by the claimants on time.
If Government has its way, it could mean an end to the court proceedings, but the claimants are holding out hope for better — that vindication for voters who they believe have been disenfranchised will come from the court.
“This is beyond just us saying that we must have a referendum on the issue of whether there should be offshore oil drilling or not, but it’s testing a legislation that was given to us by this administration saying that we are giving you, the people, the power because democracy is government for the people by the people; and one way people govern is by giving their views in a referendum,” Matura-Shepherd told the media after today’s session.
She points forward to another impending referendum — that intended to canvas the stance of Belizean voters on whether the unfounded Guatemalan claim over at least half of Belize should be adjudicated at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The Barrow administration refused a call by Oceana to hold an offshore drilling referendum when dual elections were held earlier this year, and Matura-Shepherd has hinted that the opportunity to piggy-back on the ICJ referendum, due October 2013, is still available to the Government.
“Remember, people want to have a say. You hear people’s opinions on the issue of oil and most people say there is a limit as to where we want you to drill and definitely one of the areas off limits is offshore,” said Matura-Shepherd. “Maybe it’s a curse or a blessing that we have the world’s second largest barrier reef, and we as a people have a right to protect that, and it’s not protecting it for the sake of protecting it — it’s a source of livelihood already, and it’s something that once destroyed, you cannot get back.”
Oceana is fighting offshore drilling on two fronts. It is also asking the court to quash six offshore contracts, on the grounds that key requirements in Belizean law were violated in sealing the agreements.
Prominent among those contracts is that for Princess Petroleum for oil exploration over 1.8 million acres of Belize’s offshore territory, including the world-famous Blue Hole.
This second legal challenge is set to be heard before Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall next month.