Headline — 20 March 2019 — by Rowland A. Parks
The Special Agreement (Compromis) challenged in court

PUP parliamentarians want interim injunction to stop ICJ referendum

BELIZE CITY, Fri. Mar. 15, 2019– The Special Agreement (the Compromis) that was signed by Belize’s Foreign Minister, Hon. Wilfred Elrington at the headquarters of the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., in 2008, to submit Guatemala’s claim to Belize to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has become the subject of a constitutional challenge by parliamentarians of the Opposition, the People’s United Party.

The PUP claimants are also asking the court to grant an interim injunction to stop the April 10 ICJ referendum.

 The constitutional challenge, filed by the Courtenay-Coye law firm last Wednesday, is based on the “Joint Legal Opinion” of attorneys Anthony Sylvestre, Dickie Bradley and Kareem Musa, whose research of the law has led them to conclude that the Special Agreement, signed by the Foreign Minister of Belize, is in violation of the Belize Constitution, because, potentially, it is granting power to the ICJ to change Belize’s borders without the Constitutional requirement of a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Representatives.

A hearing on the claim got underway this morning in the courtroom of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin. Due to the late challenge and the nearness of the April 10 referendum, the Chief Justice will hear arguments for the interim injunction before the substantive claim is heard. The     interim injunction will be heard on April 1, and the Chief Justice has pledged to give a ruling before referendum day.

PUP area representatives — Hon. Michael Espat, Toledo East; Hon.  Oscar Requeña, Toledo West; Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, Stann Creek West; Hon. Julius Espat, Cayo South; Hon. Cordel Hyde, Lake Independence; and Anthony Mahler, standard bearer for the Pickstock constituency, are named as the claimants.

The defendants are the Prime Minister, the Chief Elections Officer, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General, who are being represented by the Office of the Solicitor General, which has retained attorney Lisa Shoman, SC, as their lead counsel.

Following the court hearing, during which both sides worked out submission dates, Shoman emerged from the court and told reporters, “The hearing date was set for the urgent interim injunction that the claimants are asking for.”

Shoman went on to explain that essentially, the claimants are asking the court to restrain the Prime Minister from asking the Governor General to issue a writ of referendum.

Shoman, however, stated that, “In fact, that has already happened. That request was made back in January, and the writ was issued in February.”

“So, this is well after any such requests. So, what I signaled to the court is that Mr. Courtenay accepts that that has already happened. So, what we will be arguing over, in terms of injunction only, will be the matter of whether the matter can and should be conducted,” Shoman further explained.

One of the claimants, Hon. Cordel Hyde, also spoke to reporters following the hearing, which was attended by all of the claimants.

Hon. Hyde said he considers the matter to be very serious and was very pleased that the Chief Justice has agreed to hear the case.

“We know that the other side has tried to make a point about us bringing this matter late, but I want to emphasize that after we got the opinion from learned attorney Anthony Sylvestre, we had our other attorneys look very closely at it very quickly, and we moved expeditiously to file this matter in court,” Hon. Hyde said.

Hon Hyde added, “Under the laws of Belize, the people of Belize have the final say, they have veto over any proposed final settlement with Guatemala. In other words, we get to say yea or nay on any proposed settlement with Guatemala. What you have under the Special Agreement is a proposal to outsource that power to 15 foreign judges.

“In other words, we would be saying to 15 foreign judges, you decide this matter. You settle this matter, and we will live with it. We will have to live with it because under the terms of the Special Agreement, that’s essentially, what we’re doing is we’re saying it’s binding. Anything from the ICJ would be binding, would be final.”

Hyde further outlined what could possibly result if the claim is taken to the ICJ by saying, “If we go and lose, we would be crying, weeping; there would be gnashing of teeth, but we cannot do anything about it. And what we are saying is that that’s a very far-reaching consequence of the Special Agreement, and the Foreign Minister does not have the authority to bind the people of Belize without getting an input from the people of Belize, through their parliamentarians in the National Assembly. We never got that.

“So, understand this, if we go to the ICJ under this Special Agreement, our borders — what we know as Belize — can be altered. If we go to the ICJ under this Special Agreement, the people who live down south may not be Belizeans when all is said and done; at least, where they live, may not be part of Belize anymore.”

Hon. Hyde was asked if he was concerned that the international community may take the view that Belize is flip-flopping on holding the referendum.

Hon Hyde said, “So, we are at this point where it seems like we have to take instructions from the international community. But, that happens when you go hat in hand to the international community begging for money all the time. You know that we have literally gone to the international community to beg for money for our education campaign on the most critical, the most existential question of our lifetimes.

“The Government could not find 8 million dollars or 5 million dollars, required to have an education campaign that will be fair, that will be balanced, where the pros and the cons will be delivered, full of facts, full of history, free of fear-mongering.”

“We can’t have that because we are around the world begging for money to provide this education campaign to our people. If you take these people’s money, then these people will give instructions to you,” Hon. Hyde pointed out.

Hon Hyde added, “And that is the problem that we have. We should have never taken any money from the U.K. or the U.S. to provide an education campaign for the people. That is the responsibility of the government of Belize for and on behalf of the people of Belize. We have a situation where we spend four million dollars annually on new vehicles. We spend four million dollars on that tragedy that’s Lake I Boulevard; eight million dollars ‘pan wah mile a road ina Fabers Road.’ We spend thirty-five million dollars ‘ina road in the middle of nowhere’ to the airport; thirty-five million dollars pan di Civic Centre. We wah spend one hundred and ninety million dollars pan the Caracol Road ina Mountain Pine Ridge, ina di middle of nowhere, where nobody lives.”

“But we can’t find eight million dollars to make sure that our education campaign is free from fear-mongering, and full of the facts and history,” he said.

Courtenay, the lead counsel for the PUP claimants, was asked what would happen to the result of the referendum if the Compromis is found to be unconstitutional.

“We believe that there are compelling reasons for this matter to be before the court, and that’s why I stressed to the Chief Justice that the government itself is saying that this is a matter of national importance. If both sides agree that this is a matter of national importance, it seems that the government could easily give an undertaking that they will put off the referendum until the Supreme Court has determined this matter.” he said.

He further remarked, “Let us not forget that Guatemala postponed their referendum twice. There is no magic to the 10th of April. And so, I believe that the rule of law must prevail, and this matter should be completed before the referendum is held”.

Shoman, who has also served as Belize’s Foreign Minister during the Said Musa-led administration, was asked why she is representing the UDP government in court on this matter.

Shoman explained that she is still a PUP.

“Hold on, hold on, I am still PUP! I am still a PUP and until I am excommunicated, I will continue to be PUP. I think even the Deputy Party Leader and the Party Leader would agree! So, let’s get that out of the way. You know, this is not PUP. It’s not about UDP. It’s about Belize. And let me just remind everybody, it is the People’s United Party that started this journey that knew that we were going to go to the ICJ.

“In fact, I was the Foreign Minister when Jose Miguel Insulza recommended that we should go to the ICJ. The government thereafter changed, and Senator Courtenay was present when the Special Agreement was signed. So, we’ve known this day was coming now for over a decade,” she said.

Shoman said that, because of the gravity of the case, and the level of responsibility involved in handling it, there must be strong and forceful argument on both sides, and that she is honored to be arguing the case against Eamon Courtenay.

Courtenay was also asked what would happen if the Chief Justice ruled against granting the interim injunction on the referendum.

“If the Chief Justice were to say no to the injunction, we have the option of moving on an emergency basis to the Court of Appeal, and thereafter, on an emergency basis to the Caribbean Court of Justice.

“But all of that is prejudging what is going to happen. We believe that the interest of justice and the rule of law will require that the claimants have their day in court before the referendum is held,” Courtenay replied.

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