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

Friday April 19 2019

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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Belize is a beautiful green and largely virgin country in Central America. It was part of the Maya ancestral lands, which covered vast areas along Central and North America.

Belize is the only English speaking country in Central America, which makes it a cultural island on the isthmus. It has greater links with the Caribbean islands and the Commonwealth at large than with its neighbours, Guatemala and Mexico.

It was Monday April 8, 2019, the D-Day that would decide if Belize would have a referendum on Wednesday April 10 or not. I sat in the small tiny beautifully furnished Court of Appeal. The hearing started at 10.10am and the presiding judge, Sir Manuel Sosa, apologised for the late start.

He went on to say that the court was extremely saddened and angered by some inaccuracies and lies published by a certain Belizean website.

This website claimed that on Saturday April 6, press and public had been thrown out of the court room while the judges and the parties held a private hearing. Justice Sosa clarified that on Saturday they were no hearings, but just a case management meeting which are usually not public.

STERN WARNING

The judge said he wanted to start with this clarification and said the Court of Appeal would take the matter seriously.

He gave a stern warning, almost threatening, to the lawyer who had misguided the press (she was mentioned by the article) and lent herself to this manipulation of the social media to fuel an adverse attitude against the court and its officers.

He said “such irresponsible statements through social media expose the court to great dangers and this is unacceptable. In fact, this court will examine this matter later and take action.”

Justice Sosa’s warning made me reflect on how easily we publicly and furiously vilify courts, judges and magistrates in Kenya. We have a misconceived understanding of freedom of expression. This doesn’t mean that court decisions should not be scrutinised and subjected to academic and social scrutiny, but our respect for the courts and the judicial profession has been irremediably damaged, mostly through social media.

The case went on. The lead counsel for the government spent more than 2 hours in a monologue trying to justify why the appeal should be heard expeditiously. It was an endless plea and the judges listened patiently.

NO REFERENDUM, NO CRY

At 4.30 pm, the presiding judge announced a short recess. The judges emerged from their backroom at 5.15pm. Justice Sosa read the decision.

The government team had underestimated the rigidity of the law. The injunction was upheld and the appeal was rejected. The government had lost, and there would be no referendum on Wednesday; it was final.

Justice Sosa explained that section 17 of the Court of Appeal Act did not allow for an appeal to be lodged in less that 21 days. Sadly, the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal, even though it was an urgent matter, before the 21 days were over.

Justice Sosa said that they could still appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice, which is Belize’s court of highest instance, but certainly it made no sense for the government to do so, for the matter would not be resolved in just a day. Undeniably, the referendum had to be postponed.

CONFLICT'S ORIGINS

In the Treaty of Tordesillas of June 7, 1494, Spain (then the Crown of Castile) and the Portuguese conquistadores claimed ownership of all lands in the new world, along meridian 370.

This meridian basically split the new world from north to south along the Amazon forest. Everything to the east of the meridian would belong to Castile, and everything to the west to Portugal.

Spain was powerful; they had expelled the last mores and the unification of the peninsula was finally a reality. Two years earlier, in 1492, Columbus had found what he originally thought to be a new shorter route to India. It turned out to be the “new world”. This gave Spain a new breath of life that extended its world dominance for years.

Spain and Portugal organised its colonies into viceroyalties and captaincy-generals. The boundaries were loosely set and many parts of the new world were never explored and exploited.

Spain and Portugal did not have enough people and the capacity to occupy all lands. Not long after, the Treaty to Tordesillas was disowned by the French and the British, whose empires would eventually dominate the modern world.

As time went on, the British and the French also set foot on the new world and traders eventually settled in different unoccupied areas, such as parts of North America, South America. One of these settlements and trading areas is what we know today as Belize.

Guatemala got its independence in 1821. In 1859 Guatemala and Britain signed the Wyke-Aycinena treaty. Great Britain asserted its claims over the land and promised to build a road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda. This road was never built.

INDEPENDENCE

British Honduras, now Belize, did not get its independence until 1981. For years, Guatemala had claimed ownership of a large part of British Honduras. Upon independence, Belize inherited this hot potato.

In December 2005, both countries signed an accord under the auspices of the Organisation of African States. They committed themselves to hold national referendums on the same date and ask their people if the matter should be taken to the International Court of Justice.

When everything was ready, in 2008, Guatemala postponed its referendum, which was finally held in 2018. It was now Belize’s term to hold theirs. The date chosen was April 10, but the court halted it. A new date will be set after certain procedural issues are well looked after.

It was a most impressive lesson on civility and utmost respect for the rule of law, how the government respected the decision of the courts. They were sad, they lost momentum, but they respected the courts. This was a big and amazing lesson from a tiny country, somewhere in the beautiful beaches and jungles of Central America. 

Dr Luis Franceschi, Dean – Strathmore Law School, [email protected]