Editorial — 23 March 2019
April 1 Decision

The Honorable Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin, has set April 1, 2019 as the date to hear an application for an interim injunction on the April 10 referendum. Belizeans, on April 10, are set to decide if Guatemala’s claim to Belize, following the guidelines set out in the Special Agreement, “should be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement…”

A constitutional challenge, researched by attorneys Richard Bradley, Kareem Musa, and Anthony Sylvestre, was filed by the Courtenay-Coye law firm. Amandala journalist, Rowland A. Parks, wrote that the attorneys “are also asking the court to grant an interim injunction to stop the April 10 ICJ referendum.”

Amandala columnist, Senator/Pastor Henry Gordon, and educator/historian, Sandra Coye, had long ago discussed the constitutionality of the Special Agreement between Belize and Guatemala, and the Belize Peace Movement had pursued it, but it was not until the PUP and some senior lawyers picked it up, that the matter got to court.

If the Prime Minister does not postpone the referendum before the hearing, he would be forced to do so if the Chief Justice rules for the interim injunction. If the matter has to be put to a vote in the House of Representatives, the date for the referendum could be pushed back well into next year. If the Special Agreement is voted on in the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the House would have to agree for it to go forward.

Postponing the referendum date wouldn’t be novel. Originally, the Special Agreement, as signed by Belize Foreign Minister, Honorable Wilfred Elrington and Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Haroldo Rodas Melgar, in 2008, called for both countries to hold a referendum on the same date.

The date the countries eventually agreed on for the simultaneous referenda was October 6, 2013. Then, Guatemala complained about the requirement for a 60% turnout of registered electors in Belize, while all they needed was a simple majority. Guatemala said it didn’t want to participate in an effort that would fail when Belize did not get a sixty percent voter participation in their referendum. The date set for the simultaneous referenda eventually fizzled.

In 2015, Belize agreed for Guatemala to go ahead and hold a solo referendum. In 2016, Belize amended her referendum law to allow for a simple majority. In December 2016, the Senate voted in support of the Special Agreement.

Guatemala set March 18, 2018 as their referendum date, and had to shuffle the date because of the Easter celebrations, and then they shuffled the date again, settling on April 15, 2018. On that date, April 15, 2018, a little over 26% of registered voters in Guatemala voted overwhelmingly for the dispute with us to be settled at the ICJ.

Belize has set April 10, 2019 as her date with destiny. It has not been easy sailing on the way to keeping that appointment. Many Belizeans are not happy about the way some matters have been resolved.

Many Belizeans, through no fault of their own, have been unable to satisfy the requirements to become a registered voter. The Vital Statistics Department embarked on a re-registration exercise last year and it has run into trouble, as it did during the last reregistration exercise that was held twenty years ago, because of poor documentation of some Belizeans. The main opposition party, the PUP, says that more than 2,000 Belizeans are yet to be certified as voters.

Many Belizeans feel that Belizeans living abroad have a right to participate in the referendum, and that Guatemalans, especially those who recently got their citizenship, should not qualify to participate. There are those who do not feel that economic citizens should be afforded the right to vote in this specific referendum.

The political challenges are many. There are calls for the Maritime Areas Act (MAA) to be amended before we vote in the referendum. There are calls for Guatemala’s Armed Forces to respect Belize’s rights in the Sarstoon, as set out in the 1859 treaty, before we vote in the referendum.

There are calls for the Referendum Act to be amended to make the results of the process binding. Senior Counsel, Eamon Courtenay, explained in an article he wrote in the Amandala in 2018, that with the Referendum Act as it currently stands, “the result of the Belize Guatemala Referendum is not legally binding on the Government”, and “as a consequence, the result of the referendum can be disregarded by any Government…”

Now, there is the constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court that was launched by the PUP. The PUP says that the party is “seeking legal certainty and clarity if the Minister of Foreign Affairs had the power to legally bind Belize to the Special Agreement…without prior legislative approval.” And the party is also asking the Supreme Court to determine if “the Referendum Act provides for the holding of a binding referendum as required by Article 7 of the Special Agreement.”

And, the PUP is seeking “orders to restrain the holding of the proposed referendum” until the court “pronounces on these matters.”

As mentioned, Belize has ratified the Special Agreement in the Senate, but the constitutional challenge is that that wasn’t sufficient. The challenge is that the Special Agreement must be agreed to, by two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly, before it can be put to the people in the form of a referendum. For the government, which is leading the charge to the referendum, and seeking a YES vote, it’s really a formality. Those who are against the Special Agreement, at least at this time, say if it violates our constitution, then it doesn’t fly.

The UDP, in a recent article in their newspaper, The Guardian, described the challenge as a “monkey wrench.” The Guardian listed the attempts by the PUP to knock the referendum off schedule, and concluded that the “latest attempt…comes as no surprise to anyone”.  The UDP’s Guardian said, “It seems that the PUP are hell bent that the Guatemalan claim should not be solved, at least not while the United Democratic Party is in office.”

Closer to the truth is that the question being put to the people of Belize cannot be answered by a crash course designed by the proponents of the YES vote, which is being led by the government. Guatemala went ahead with their referendum, but they are not the ones whose country is being claimed.

 Former Prime Minister, Honorable Said Musa, who at times has also worn the cap of Foreign Minister of Belize, wrote in his book, With Malice toward None, that after reading the Special Agreement (the first time) he worried we might have “given the Guatemalans far too much room to manoeuver.”

If a person as educated as the former prime minister, a senior counsel, had reservations when he read the Special Agreement, we cannot expect that regular Belizeans can grasp it all in a crash course. The former prime minister, after studying the agreement, later declared that he was satisfied that it was sound, and has since joined some former foreign ministers of Belize in endorsing it.

Senior Counsel, Lisa Shoman, the attorney for GoB, says it is unfair for this challenge to be mounted at the “11th hour”. She says the PUP has been with the process all along, and that Eamon Courtenay, SC, who is leading the constitutional challenge, is an actual witness to the signing of the Special Agreement. She is hopeful that the Chief Justice’s call will be for us to hold course, sail on to the April 10 marker.

In fairness to the PUP, and others, a lot has happened since the signing of the Special Agreement, including the issues to which we earlier referred. One issue that is becoming very offensive to many people is the way the government proponents of the YES vote have unfairly corralled all the resources into procuring support for the Special Agreement. It is their hope that the Chief Justice will call for us to luff, until the House votes on the critical matter.

The Friends of Belize might be worried. They have invested millions of dollars in Belize and Guatemala, to see this process through to the International Court of Justice. Belize needs more time to smooth out all the kinks and to study this matter. That is how it appears.

If the Prime Minister and the other senior proponents of the YES vote in his camp don’t decide to delay the vote on the Special Agreement shortly, then all eyes will be on the court of the Chief Justice of Belize, Kenneth Benjamin, on April 1, 2019.

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Deshawn Swasey

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