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Politicizing the constitutional challenge to the Special Agreement

BELIZE CITY, Tues, Apr. 9, 2019– Prime Minister Dean Barrow, in his public comments about the Chief Justice’s decision to grant an interim injunction in order to address the Opposition People’s United Party’s constitutional challenge to the Special Agreement, did not appear to show sufficient regard for the judicial process in which he is also named as the first defendant in the case.

As the leader of government, the Prime Minister’s remarks on the court proceedings were unhelpful and appeared to be aimed at appealing to his political support base, as if his remarks were being made in the context of looming general or municipal elections, rather than in the face of an issue with implications that transcend party politics, race, and social status.

PM Barrow has, on several occasions, publicly criticized judicial decisions that go against the government, and he has been able to get away with it because social partners such as the businesses, trade unions and the Belize Bar Association have kept silent when it comes to these attacks on court decisions.

One day after the Court of Appeal denied the government’s application for an expedited hearing of the government’s appeal of Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin’s interim injunction, the governing United Democratic Party issued a press release attacking the PUP, accusing them of trying to stop the ICJ referendum from being held at all.

The UDP, in drafting their release, apparently took a cue from the Prime Minister’s remarks on Monday when he declared: “All this is part of the Opposition’s delay tactics, and to my mind, amounts to an effort to stymie the Belizean democracy, to deny the people of this country their right…,” at his hastily called press conference minutes after the Court of Appeal denied the government’s application for an expedited hearing.

In their press release, the UDP said the PUP has “officially embarked on a malicious, unconditional campaign to block the democratic rights of Belizeans.”

The UDP release added, “The laws of Belize make it abundantly clear [that]… any proposed settlement with Guatemala for resolving the Belize/Guatemala dispute [must go to referendum]… The PUP wants the court to rule that Belizeans SHOULD NOT vote in a referendum on going to the ICJ.”

The ICJ referendum, under the protocol of the Special Agreement, however, does not involve “a proposed settlement with Guatemala.”
The legal challenge is a legitimate constitutional matter that was mounted by five PUP area representatives and a PUP standard bearer to have the court pronounce on the constitutionality of the Special Agreement (Compromis). In granting the interim injunction, the court has already tacitly agreed that an arguable case exists. Why the political hysteria from the Prime Minister?

So what will happen if the government amends the relevant laws so that they can hold the referendum within the new time frame of 6 to 8 weeks that the PM stated, and the Caribbean Court of Justice rules that the Special Agreement is unconstitutional?

That would mean that there would be a court decision which would say that the very vehicle that was used for holding the ICJ referendum — the Special Agreement — is unlawful and unconstitutional, which in turn would make the referendum unlawful, null and void.

It is an unfortunate propaganda approach to say that the constitutional challenge to the Special Agreement is political.

The Belize Constitution was drafted with the recognition that government is made up of the three branches, the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. When it comes to interpreting matters relating to the Constitution of Belize, that task falls squarely on the shoulders of the Judiciary.

Barrow and his United Democratic Party, however, continue to spread questionable claims about “the naked and opportunistic move on the part of the Opposition PUP.”

Barrow, through his repeated, pointed and public utterances, is the one who has taken the ICJ referendum to a political level; then, he turns around and blames the Opposition, saying that it is they who politicized the referendum.

At the core of the PUP’s legal challenge to the Special Agreement., however, is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Essentially, the claim is premised on the fact that the Special Agreement was supposed to have been taken to the House of Representatives before it was signed.

In other words, there has been no legislative input in the process of the Special Agreement and its protocol, which triggers the ICJ referendum. This alone makes the referendum suspect, from a legal standpoint. There must be domestic legislation to give effect to an international treaty—which the Special Agreement (Compromis) is.

Understandably, the government made a significant commitment when it signed the Special Agreement, but it has also disregarded the Belizean people, who matter the most.

So while the matter of the legal challenge is still before the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice’s interim injunction is still in place, the Prime Minister is calling a House of Representatives meeting for this Friday to attempt a “legislative fix” so the government can proceed with its ICJ referendum “in the next six to eight weeks.”

There was no mention of whether the government’s “education” campaign, which up to this point continues to be an unethical, dishonest, massive one-sided campaign to garner a “yes” vote for going to the ICJ, will grind to a halt.

We have to remember that the millions given to the government were for an educational campaign, and not for a campaign to choke a “yes” vote from the Belizean people.

Barrow, however, had indicated at his press conference on Monday evening that the so-called education campaign may have to be supported with funds from “a supplementary budget.”

“In terms of the education campaign we will have to find some kind of supplementary allocation. This matter is far too important, it’s far too fundamental for us simply to be satisfied with saying that the money wasn’t programmed, and it isn’t there,” Barrow said.

So Barrow has stated unapologetically that he will use taxpayers’ money to move “heaven and earth” to make sure his “education” campaign continues — in other words, to ensure that the vote for going to the ICJ is a “yes.”

The question, therefore, is why is Barrow so frantic to get a “yes” vote for going to the ICJ? The Prime Minister is acting as if his very life depends on it.

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