Tonight, the Belize Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill has received the assent of the Governor General and is now an Act. It was approved by the House on Friday and the Senate yesterday. The opposition may still challenge it - but if they don't - then the way is paved for an ICJ referendum - possibly by the middle of May.
But, the opposition will quite likely draw a legal objection. In his address to the Senate yesterday, the PUP's Chief Legal advisor, Senator Eamon Courtenay pointed out elementary errors in the bill:...
Hon. Eamon Courtney- PUP Senator
"How can you come to this senate, present a bill that just has in it something that is false? It is false. It is wrong. Protocol to the special agreement means the protocol to the special agreement between Belize and Guatemala signed on May 25th 2015 and ratified by the senate on 30th November 2016. Mr. President you know, I know, all of s in here know that that is not true. This senate cannot ratify a treaty. This senate did not ratify a treaty. In truth and in fact it was in 2018 that instruments of ratification were exchange between Belize and Guatemala. This thing is saying that the senate ratified it. Ratification of a treaty is an executive act by the minister of foreign affairs, not the senate. We are looking like idiots to the international community. When you put in a law that a senate ratify a treaty, but it is worse than that. The international court of justice means the principal judicial organ of the United Nations established by the charter of United Nations on June 26th, 1945. The charter was signed on the 26th June, 1945, but it didn't come into force until the 24th October, 1945. So when the international community look at this they will say so Belize never knows when this court really came into force? It is embarrassing to us to be given a bill like this for consideration and I say we should correct it before approving it. Dont sent it to the governor general like this and ask him to ascent to it."
We are told what's called the "Committee of the Whole" met for some hours afterwards to address some of those oversights and errors. The government side has described it as minor corrections - but other sources tell us that the Senators debated for some time about when, and whether the Senate had actually ratified the Special Agreement.
In the end though, the bill was considered passed without amendment after those adjustments were made.
“People’s” Divided - Briceno’s Unanimity Problem
So, now, the Government has done its work in record time - and a new Territorial Dispute Referendum Bill is in place in record time - less than a week after the Supreme Court forced the postponement of the referendum.
So, the ball is in the opposition's court. But the PUP has its own fires to put out first. For the first time in the 25 years we've been covering the National Assembly - opposition members in both the house and senate have abstained on a matter of national and political importance. That means they haven't strictly held the party line. Jules Vasquez examined the significance of this:..
Eamon Courtenay, PUP ATTORNEY
"If the Prime Minister wants to have this referendum lawfully, he should move the resolution, first of all, under Section 2.1.A, but that requires a debate in the House of Representatives. And that resolution has to be passed. And it is quite obvious, that he's afraid of it, and the reason that he is afraid of it is that there are members in House who are not going to come out publicly in the National Assembly and vote in support of what he wants to do. So, he doesn't want to take that risk."
Jules Vasquez reporting
Of course when the new Belize Territorial Referendum Bill came out - the risk lay with the PUP LEader John Briceno:
"Can the public expect PUP as a party to not support this bill in house tomorrow and in the senate on Monday?"
Hon. John Briceno
"The consensus this afternoon that we had from all our parliamentarians is they believe that, as it is right now, as it stands right now, it will be very difficult for us to support it tomorrow. Maybe the Prime Minister may decide to just table it and then go through its process by having a House Committee meeting and have people coming in and give suggestions and hopefully some amendments that will address the concerns that we may have. If they do that then obviously it will have some more time for us to discuss. We believe that at this time, the way it is, it will be very difficult for us to support it tomorrow."
"Including Said Musa and Valerie Woods who have both been in favor of a yes vote?"
Hon. John Briceno
"Well, senator Woods was here this afternoon and I said there was a consensus. The former Prime Minister was in court so he could not attend. But I have every confidence that he will support the party's position when it comes to the actual bill that is going to be tabled tomorrow."
Of course, he didn't, and she didn't: they both abstained:
Hon. Valerie Woods- PUP Senator
"Guided by my conscience I am compelled to abstain on today's voting."
Rt. Hon. Said Musa - PUP, Fort George, Former PM
"I will not defy my party line, so I will abstain on this bill."
Of course, it is a defiance not to strictly hold the line on a bill of this magnitude, leaving Mr. Briceno holding the line all by himself.
As we told you last night, there are rumors that the PUP may wish to remove Senator Valerie Woods - and she alluded to it in her speech as well saying the vote may be her swan song. But, best reports say, if that happens, it won't be right now.