Is This an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

by: Hubert Pipersburgh

Should the people of Belize call for a Constitutional Conference an event to bring together the best Belizean minds possible that can fashion a document that represents our struggles while crafting a new direction for the 21st century and will have built in mechanism for the participation of the people?

This is a legitimate public policy question. As the debate rages on in Belize on the merits or demerits of amending the current Constitution to bring into effect preventative detention and government control over key utilities, we have seen both sides making passionate arguments for their respective positions. The evidence is in its been 30 years since political independence, we are even more divided, alienated, adversarial, and lack civility (balancing conflicting interest with conflicting demands) towards each other. I am formally calling not for an amendment, but a constitutional conference.

In all these charges and counter charges, one fact stands out clearly, although the PUP and UDP may tend to bicker about details, they both agree on the fundamentals of the economic and political system in Belize. Acceptance and accommodation of the Westminster Model from the self-government constitution to the current constitution was not accidental. This one size fits all document developed and implemented by the British colonial leaders and given to all their former colonies was deliberate and insidious. In 1959, the British appointed Sir Henry Blood to make recommendations on a new constitution. Mr. Blood duly noted that the existence of the British parliamentary system of government is the existence of two-parties. The underlying assumption being that the British insistence on the adoption of their two party systems was the only way or no way. This two-party system was eventually internalized in the country’s political future, accepted in effect as an indispensable element of democracy.

To fully understand Belizean society it must be viewed within the context of the British colonial system and experience, a system that at its core was based on discrimination, racism, sexism, and the denial of individual rights. Colonial exploitation took abroad the wealth of the country and left it impoverished and destitute. The maintenance of the political system, including the role assigned to the political parties in it ensured the objectives of the colonial powers by allowing a local elite (oligarchy) the political powers to foster a model of development that preserve the dominance of foreign capital in association with the local elite.

The country of Belize achieved self-government in 1964. However, the self-government constitution was just a token because Britain still maintained control in the area of defense and foreign policy and most domestic institutions of the government such as the civil administration and the police. Assad Shoman asserts that the principal objective of the departing colonial power in imposing a particular political and party system was and is to maintain the “dominance of the center over the periphery.” In this case the center being Britain along with U.S. and western European Hegemony. This frustrating system in which the elected government had the responsibilities of office but not the necessary power to carry out its programs lasted for seventeen years.

After being summoned to London and given a carbon copy constitution, Belize gained political independence in 1981. In order to guarantee continuance of their interest, the colonial institution’s economic, legal, cultural, and social including the political and administrative systems had to remain virtually intact after constitutional independence. Property relations were to remain essentially unchanged and foreign investments were to continue be welcome. This resulted in the continued poverty and marginalization of the vast majority of the newly independent people. In short, the system had to ensure their exclusion from power in the independent state. This is best achieved by a two-party system that by and large divides the working class and thereby effectively excludes the people from the decision making role in the definition of the nation state.

Hence, sweeping legislative changes, true constitutional separation of powers, legislative implementation, zero corruption policy that many have called for is not possible without drastic changes to or a radical revamping of our constitution. If we rely on the premise that this constitution is the supreme law of the land, then those changes will never be realized with this current document that has so many faults and short comings.

As it relates to preventative detention and amendments to this document many brilliant legal minds have struggled to find precedents in case law in Belize to bolster their defense of this document. When they did find Stare decisis, the cases seemed remote and did not bolster their argument to augment their vehement defense of Belize’s constitution. They have used examples that border on the ridiculous such as Pakistan, a semi autocratic state that dabbles in Sharia (Islamic Law). It is painfully obvious that the way this constitution is currently written, a dubious, bogus document, was meant to confound, frustrate, and bedevil even the most brilliant of constitutional scholar: Dr. Walter Rodney, Michael Manley, Assad Shoman Brilliant legal minds have long since voiced their displeasure and no-confidence in the ability of these grafted documents given to its former colonies by London. It cannot fully arbitrate our legal, social, political, and economic struggles in a satisfactory manner.

For those who praised British institutions and British laws, and advance the argument that this constitution which gave us the Westminster Model as a fair administration under which every resident could experience the principles of fair play, freedom, justice, and equality ignores the important fact that our under-development was aided and abetted by this very document in the first place. True, political independence is the first important step forward, however, in order to enjoy true representation we must have a constitution established by the people for the people. Only then does the possibility exist to utilize the country’s resources for independent social and economic development, instead of continued tribute to trans-national interest and absentee shareholders. This constitution relies on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the final arbiter for some of its most egregious cases. Is this then an independent constitution to be held up as a beacon for freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The Privy Council, a relic of the past an institution that is meant to serve as a reminder to those Britain once rule, is an abstraction of defeat screaming at us you are not a sovereign nation, independent yes, but in name only. The Caribbean has some of the most brilliant legal minds. Many of them have slowly come to the realization with their development of the Caribbean Court of Appeal (CCJ) that there was a need to move toward true autonomy for our respective nations. The CCJ, in substitution for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is a testament to that fact. For me, the biggest affront and mockery of our sovereignty is the Queen of England as our head of state and a governor general as her representative along with the concept of crown lands and crown counsels.

Undoubtedly there are some who feel that something is seriously wrong with this constitution, although society as a whole has been reluctant to admit this and face the issue squarely and seek solutions. How can a system and a constitution designed and developed by colonial masters be the only way to self-determination and autonomy for our people? It is no wonder we are stuck in the art of muddling through because the very vehicle designed to help us out is like an albatross around our collective necks. We have tried to discredit any independent thought that dare to suggest we look at alternatives for better governance. Dr. Ivan Sertimer describes it best “colonialism has captured our imagination”. Hence, it now seems virtually impossible to think outside that paradigm for many of us.
We entered independence as a divided, confuse, and bewildered people not fully understanding the civic duty possible to be a true nationalist. We were never consulted, engage in debates, nor were a full participant in crafting this document to lead us to self-determination, true autonomy, and real independence. We had no hand as a collective body of people in determining the direction for our country’s future. Is this the legacy we will continue to pass on to our children? Throughout the annals of history I have yet to see a model where the people who have been summarily denied the access to mold their constitution prosper as a nation state.

The U.S. crafted their constitution after bitter revolutionary struggle. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. The time has come for us to correct our history. Let us utilize our god given right to something more. Let us fashion a document to our benefit one that clearly articulate our vision, aspirations, and destiny for children. I ask all Belizeans let us repair our political faults that clearly start with this document.