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Belize, the rule of law and judicial independence (Part I)

Friday April 12 2019

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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The strong eastern winds blowing from the Caribbean Sea thwarted my jogging efforts. I kept going; the scenery was idyllic. It was 6:45 am and I was in Belize City.

The city was asleep. The sun had already been up for more than an hour. Suddenly, I noticed that not everyone was asleep. Dean Barrow was also jogging, perhaps walking fast, at a comfortable pace on the other side of the street. Mr Barrow is no small man. He is Belize’s Prime Minister. He had no bodyguards, no retinue; he was alone.

I had met Barrow at his office the day before, during a courtesy call by the Referendum Observer Group from the Commonwealth. Our conversation focused on the current injunction against the referendum requested by the opposition and surprisingly upheld by the Chief Justice.

Belize City is a small and beautiful city in the Caribbean coast of Belize. As soon as my plane touched down, my driver told me that there was a hearing at the Supreme Court at 2:00 pm. The Chief Justice was about to rule on an injunction against the referendum. I did not know that what I had come to observe, might never take place.

UPHELD INJUNCTION

We had just enough time to drop our bags at the hotel and rushed out to the Supreme Court building. Shock horror! No one expected it! Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin upheld an injunction against the referendum. It was less than a week to the referendum date.

The government, together with everyone else, was thrown into total confusion. Will there be a referendum? Everyone asked. Nobody, not even the Prime Minister knew.

When we discussed the matter, Mr Hubert Ingraham, a prestigious former Prime Minister of the Bahamas, in his political wisdom suggested that we should continue our work until Monday, when the substance of the case might be decided.

Our schedule was packed and there was no time to waste. Referendum or no referendum we rolled up our sleeves. Martin, Tres-Ann, Elizabeth and Andy, an amazingly able team from the Commonwealth Secretariat, had put together a very comprehensive schedule of meetings and sessions. It was a truly intense crash course on Belize’s situation.

We met the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the opposition leader, the lawyers, the trade unions, the referendum commission and their executive team, other small parties, diplomats, private sector, former leaders, experts, etc.

Our work also included a visit to the Adjacency Zone, a two-kilometre-wide strip of land across the Western border between Belize and Guatemala. This area, managed by the Organization of American States, was set up by the two countries to prevent any conflict or confrontation between Guatemalans and Belizeans.

Belize is a parliamentary democracy, with the Queen of England as Head of State and a Governor General (Governor Colville Young) as her representative in the governing structure. The government is headed by the Prime Minister Barrow, a prestigious man who has served three terms (the maximum according to the constitution) and who is due to retire next year, in 2020.

Mr Burrow is powerful. He holds a comfortable majority in both the Senate and the lower House. He is simple and straightforward in his speech; a man of few words, who walks on the streets, drives his own car and swims in the public pool of a hotel near his home. Mr Burrow’s legacy and party strength has been put to test by the upcoming referendum and its legal battles.

Mr Barrow’s legacy to the Belizean people is deeply entangled with resolving the boundary conflict between Belize and Guatemala. This has been Belize’s Damocles’ sword since its independence in 1981.

In an agreement negotiated with the help of several international organisations, and which was signed in 2012 by Guatemala and Belize, both countries agreed to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, provided a national referendum was held simultaneously in each country, asking their citizens if they approved such a move.

Guatemala delayed their referendum several times, until it was finally held in 2018. Belize was to hold theirs on 10 April, 2019. All systems were in place…observers had arrived, and material had been deployed. The shock came on Tuesday, April 3, 2019 when Chief Justice Jacobs upheld an injunction halting the referendum.

MANY OPTIONS

The opposition had moved to court on procedural grounds. There were only seven days to the referendum, and there was a weekend in between. The government considered the possibility of requesting the Chief Justice for a variation of the order, allowing the referendum to go ahead, though results would be withheld until the matter was substantively resolved.

The government also had the choice of going to the Court of Appeal to try to have the injunction quashed or, alternatively, they could also request the Court of Appeal for a variation of the order given by the Chief Justice in the lower court.

The government’s strongest option was not legal, but political. They have a majority in Parliament and they could have forced their way into amending expeditiously the relevant laws to allow the referendum to go on, or they could have just amended an old law that prevents any appeal from being heard before 21 days.

After much consultations, the government decided that it would not be prudent to go to Parliament and change the laws. This would give the impression of direct interference with court processes for the sake of political gain, and the Prime Minister did not like this thought.

In a magnanimous move, Mr Barrow decided that courts should not be bullied, and they opted to risk and go directly to the Court of Appeal, hoping that a flexible interpretation of the limits of periods for an appeal would prevail, given the national interest in holding the referendum as soon as possible.

It was Monday, April 8, 2019, just two days away from the D-Day for Belize’s referendum. I sat in the small tiny but beautifully furnished Court of Appeal. The hearing started at 10:10 and the presiding judge, Sir Manuel Sosa, apologised for the late start.

What happened that Monday is a story that must be narrated comprehensively, and I promise to do so next week.
Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]