The new referendum law is designed to put an end to the Chief Justice’s interim injunction
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Apr. 11, 2019– Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who has been named as the first defendant in a constitutional claim before the Supreme Court, has resorted to his parliamentary lawmaking powers to avoid obeying an interim injunction issued by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin that stops the government from proceeding with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum until after the court concludes the hearing of the substantive claim.
The claimants in the case are members of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), five of whom are elected parliamentarians and one a standard bearer.
The ICJ referendum is a product of the protocol of the Special Agreement signed between Belize and the Republic of Guatemala, to submit Guatemala’s territorial, insular and maritime claim to the ICJ for a final and binding resolution.
At a Special Session of the House of Representatives tomorrow, Friday, April 12, PM Barrow intends to introduce a new referendum bill: “The Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill, 2019.”
It is expected that the new bill will go through all its readings tomorrow and will be passed by the Senate on Monday. It will be ready for the Governor General’s signature by Tuesday—thus paving the road for the government to proceed with its ICJ referendum.
By resorting to the lawmaking powers of parliament, Prime Minister Barrow has put the Judiciary and the Legislature on a collision course, because the constitutional challenge to the Special Agreement is a matter scheduled to begin in the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, on Monday, April 15.
The new law, however, will put an end to the interim injunction, which was issued to enable the court to address a faulty referendum writ under the 2008 Referendum Act.
Lead attorney for the claimants in the case, Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, who is also a PUP Senator, told Amandala, following an emergency parliamentary caucus meeting this afternoon, that the Prime Minister’s new law will be challenged in court.
The Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill begins as follows: “AN ACT to provide for a referendum to determine whether any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime areas pertaining to these territories shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice for final settlement and for the International Court of Justice to determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of Belize and Guatemala, and to provide for matter connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
Under the 2008 Referendum Act, the referendum writ has to be signed by the Governor General 30 days before the referendum is held.
Under the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Act, the referendum can be held a mere 10 days after the Governor General issues the writ of referendum.
Following the emergency parliamentary caucus this afternoon, PUP leader, Hon. John Briceño, told reporters that he finds it incredible that the government would pass a new referendum act, considering that we already have a referendum act.
“By simply using the present Referendum Act, a lot of what we are asking for could have been addressed,” Briceño said.
Briceño said that he considers it disrespectful to the Opposition for the Prime Minister to rush the bill through all its stages in one sitting of the House, especially since the PUP just received a copy of the bill today, Thursday.
“It’s almost obscene the haste … Why the undue haste?” Briceño asked.
Briceño said there are many concerns in the minds of the Belizean people, so the government shouldn’t hold the referendum so quickly.
“There is almost a sense of fear in people’s minds, also taking into consideration that this matter is still before the court. Let’s take some time out. Let’s discuss this with a level of maturity,” Briceño said.
Briceño said that there are some sections of the new bill that could end up in court, that it could be challenged.
He was asked if the PUP would try to block the bill in court.
Briceño reiterated that the people of Belize have a right to a referendum on the unfounded claim of Guatemala. “The people have a right to make a decision, but we must get it right,” he said.
He was asked if he was afraid that the PUP might be labeled as deliberately obstructionist.
“I think it is the opposite. I think a lot of people want more time, because they are afraid to make the wrong decision. They need a time out, a breather. Why was April 10 a magic number? Why is next month going to be a magic number? Guatemala changed their referendum three times, to make sure that they got it right. If Guatemala could have done that, why can’t we? Guatemala is not better than us,” Briceño said.
The Opposition Leader said the PUP was not deliberately delaying anything. “As the Opposition, we represent over 67,000 people from the last time,” he said.
Briceño said that we need to address issues such as the 2,500 Belizeans who cannot get on the voters list.
“Let’s sit down and see how we could get them back on the list,” he said. “There is the issue of the Maritime Areas Act; why can’t we amend that law before we have a referendum?” he added.
“Under Section 3 of the new referendum act, we could be implicitly agreeing to amend the Constitution, so we have to get legal advice on that, because under the Constitution, you need a 90-day cooling off period. We believe that tomorrow it will be difficult for us to support this bill,” Briceño said.
In response to a criticism that the Prime Minister had accused him of standing in the way of citizens who want to vote in a matter of national importance, Briceño said that Barrow had to say something “after he was embarrassed twice in the courts with his iron-clad case.”
Briceno added: “We firmly believe that we must obey the constitution and the laws of this country. It is about the rule of law. Governments need to understand that not because they are the majority, they can push anything down our throats.”