General — 19 April 2019 — by Rowland A. Parks
“If my head will roll … let it roll!”

PUP Senator Valerie Woods, in conjecturing that her party may kick her out, said: “Balancing those interests of country, party and guided by my conscience, I am compelled to abstain from today’s [Senate] voting.”

BELMOPAN, Mon. Apr. 15, 2019– The Senate met today in the National Assembly chamber, and debated and voted on government’s new referendum law, the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill, which easily passed through the Senate by a vote of 8 in favor, 4 against, and 1 abstention.

Following a People’s United Party (PUP) parliamentary caucus meeting at his Belize City office last Friday, PUP leader, Hon. John Briceño, area representative of Orange Walk Central, told reporters that there was a consensus on how PUP members of the House of Representatives and the Senate would vote on the government’s new referendum law.

Following a heated debate of the bill on Friday in the House of Representatives, the former two-term PUP Prime Minister, Said Musa, to the surprise of his party, abstained from voting on the measure.

Musa’s action in the House drew a round of applause from the government side and he was praised as being a “true statesman.”

A similar situation occurred in the Senate when the votes were cast and counted. PUP Senator Valerie Woods had indicated, like former Prime Minister Musa, that she was a “yes” to Belize taking Guatemala’s territorial claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Senator Woods abstained from voting on the bill, while Church Senator Ashley Rock and the NGO Senator Osmany Salas voted in favor of the bill.

On the floor of the Senate, Senator Woods declared, almost defiantly, “I have always tried, Mr. President and colleagues in this chamber, to follow the dictates of my conscience and on this bill it will be no different, because I remind myself of the oath I took to bear true faith and allegiance to Belize.

“In discharging my duty as a Senator on a vote of such an overarching national issue, my decision cannot be a selfish one influenced by that notion of self-preservation. The interest of Belize is paramount. It should be for all of us. So given the approach I take, it has to be finely balanced with respect to the party that appointed me and that has afforded me the position to serve country with the dictates of principle and my conscience. Balancing those interests of country, party and guided by my conscience I am compelled to abstain from today’s, voting.”

Senator Woods then added, “And if it should be my swan song, Mr. President, I am comforted that it should be on an issue of existential importance to this country. So, if my head will be rolled, let it roll on this most critical national issue. And let the chips fall where they may.”

PUP senior senator, Eamon Courtenay, explained that if the Belize/Guatemala case goes to the ICJ, Honduras most likely will ask to join the case.

Courtenay told the Senate, “…for the maritime areas in the Port of Honduras to be set, Honduras has to be a part and I have very little doubt that once this claim is filed Honduras is going to apply to be a party so that its rights in the Port of Honduras are not prejudiced. What is the point? You can read the 2002 opinion from beginning to end and you will see no opinion expressed about the strength or weakness of any claim from Honduras. They went and they asked Professor Schwebel to issue a revised, updated opinion, but there is no, absolutely not a word about any potential claim from Honduras. We are rushing headlong into this matter without telling the Belizean people that there is likely to be a claim from Honduras, that we as a people need to decide, ….if Honduras says they abandoned any claim ….go to Honduras, get a diplomatic note to that effect and publish it, so that we can rest assured. We need to make an informed decision.”

On the question of the litigation risk in going to the ICJ for a settlement of the Guatemalan claim, the Government of Belize, in its ICJ education campaign, continues to put forward the idea that Belize has an ironclad case and cannot lose at the ICJ. This is contrary to the legal opinions expressed on this matter, and Senator Courtenay pointed this out to the Senate.

He noted, “…Mr. Barrow is quoting from the answer from Sir Eli, who says, ‘As to the concerns shown by some Belizeans regarding the possibility of being asked to give up land, I do not believe that this is realistic. I stand by the legal opinion on the issue that I gave in 2002 and do not believe that Guatemala can possibly establish a valid claim to any part of the territory of Belize. Of course, the court is not always predictable and I could be wrong, but I cannot see how we can proceed by any other basis than the 2002 opinion is correct… As to the concerns expressed in Belize about the risk of losing in the court, it is impossible in referring to a dispute to the court to convey to the population of Belize an absolute promise that Belize will win.’

“Now, Mr. Barrow, after seeing Sir Eli’s response to Senator Hulse’s concern, Mr. Gandhi wrote in March 2009 that he thought that view was overconfident of Belize’s case and pointed to Sir Eli’s admission that there is always a risk of losing in court proceedings, remote as it may be in the present case.”

Trade Union senator, Hon. Elena Smith, questioned whether or not the referendum that the Bill calls for will be a binding referendum. Senator Smith also questioned whether or not the right information is being presented to the Belizean people.

She stated, “If it is that we want to get this matter dealt with, we have to address all of those issues. And so we hear about stop giving people misinformation…that is all we have been doing because we have not been telling them the truth. And so keeping back information from people is giving them misinformation.

“That needs to stop and we need to seriously deal with our business and get our people well prepared to make their decision. And so, Mr. President, I’ve raised all of these issues. There are other issues that we have, but they were raised before and I don’t want to waste time going over those same things again.

“With all that we’ve said, Mr. President, all that we’ve raised from the NTUCB, I will reiterate that we want our people to take part in a referendum, but we want it to be done properly and therefore, as the NTUCB, my direction today was that we say no to this bill.”

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