Will Belize Get a People’s Constitution? Prospects and Challenges

By Dylan Vernon, 31 October
Second reading of People’s Constitution Commission Bill in parliament of Belize (photo credit: Channel 5 Belize)
Second reading of People’s Constitution Commission Bill in parliament of Belize on 17 October 2022 (photo credit: Channel 5 Belize)

Belize is embarking on its second constitutional review process since independence. While the review has cross-partisan support, preliminary criticisms about the composition of the People’s Constitution Commission, the body entrusted with the review, highlight the challenge of designing a membership approach that is transparent and representative yet manageable. Nevertheless, for the reform process and a potential referendum to succeed, the Commission must see itself not as a body of elite constitutional drafters but as a facilitator of a truly consultative process to ascertain and represent the aspirations of the Belizean people - writes Dr. Dylan Vernon

Introduction

With the passage of the People’s Constitution Commission Act in October 2022, Belize became the latest Commonwealth Caribbean state to commit to a comprehensive process of constitutional reform. This is Belize’s second such effort since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. Two decades after the 1999 Political Reform Commission’s (PRC) final report and 41 years after independence, Belizeans have another opportunity to forge a totally new rule book for the state. The People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) is mandated to “draft and guide the process of promulgating a new Constitution for Belize or amendments to the Belize Constitution.” Whether this will just be another conservative exercise of minor incremental change or will actually ‘rock di system’ (the name of a radio show during the 1999 process) is still an open question. For those seeking the latter, it will be an uphill but not impossible undertaking. What is different this time around is that if the process results in a new constitution, its fate could be decided not by parliament alone but ultimately by the Belizean people in a referendum.

A Different Path to the 2022 Commission

In 1999 the PRC was the culmination of a five-year advocacy and education campaign by civil society groups that pressured reluctant political parties to act. This time around the civil society voices have been sporadic and the new reform process is commencing with limited popular demand and with a critical public education deficit. However, the People’s United Party (PUP) government, which took power in November 2020 after losing three consecutive general elections to the United Democratic Party (UDP), the other major party, made bold manifesto promises on improving good governance, including to initiate another constitutional reform debate. In doing so, it sought to appeal to those in civil society concerned about democratic decay and also to distinguish itself from the then-UDP government before the 2020 elections.

The piecemeal and opportunistic approach to constitutional change led to renewed calls for a holistic reform process.

Yet, even before the PCC Act was passed, the PUP government sought to use its supermajority in the House of Representatives (26 to 5) to attempt substantive constitutional amendments. Four constitutional amendment bills have been tabled before the National Assembly since January 2021, which represents one-third of all such bills since independence. Two of these (the 9th Amendment Bill and 12th Amendment Bill) followed through on PUP manifesto promises to increase the efficiency of the judiciary; they were largely innocuous and passed with minimal objections. However, the other two proposed amendments came unexpectedly and created much controversy. The 10th Amendment Bill would have caused all the members of four constitutionally enshrined bodies, including the Election and Boundaries Commission, to vacate office on the same day as the dissolution of the National Assembly before a general election. The 11th Amendment Bill would have disqualified persons who had served specified prison sentences from membership in the National Assembly – and could have been used against the current Leader of the Opposition, Moses ‘Shyne’ Barrow, who served an almost 10-year prison sentence in the United States. By the end of 2021 the government heeded the voices of protest that urged that these two controversial amendments be shelved and deferred to the promised constitutional review. By highlighting existing concerns about the piecemeal and opportunistic approach to constitutional change, the aborted flirtations with constitutional adventurism led to renewed calls for a holistic reform process.

Another added impetus for constitutional reform came from an unexpected source – the debate on whether and when Belize should become a republic, stimulated by the visit to Belize of British royals in March 2022 and then by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Unlike Barbados in 2021, the government did not move to transition Belize to a republic by parliamentary decree (it only needed a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Representatives) before the full constitutional review. Instead, that decision will be but one part of the coming constitutional review process.

A Powerful Mandate...and Early Challenges

Unlike the 1999 Commission that received only an executive mandate from the then-prime minister Said Musa and had no enabling legislation, the PCC Act establishes the 2022 Commission, empowers it to execute its mandate to conduct a comprehensive review of the current Constitution, and specifies how its recommendations are to be advanced by the National Assembly. In summary, the PCC Act gives the 2022 Commission broad powers to independently design and facilitate widespread educational and consultative processes with Belizeans at home and abroad and to make recommendations that reflect the concerns and desires of the Belizean people and that adhere to national values and principles – including some of those listed in the preamble of the current Constitution. The Commission will then prepare a report with recommendations for constitutional amendments or a new constitution, including, if it so decides, a draft of these amendments. The report will be presented by the Commission to the Prime Minister, the Honourable John Briceño, who will thereafter submit it to the National Assembly. While the government has publicly committed to a referendum at the end of the process, section 22 of the Act states that the National Assembly must pass a “resolution declaring that the matter stated in the report … is of sufficient national importance” to be put to referendum.

Apart from the media, youth organizations and the Belizean diaspora, the demands for inclusion, in the context of Belize’s multi-ethnic society, came from several cultural and ethnic groups...

Based on past and recent public discussion, critical reform questions will include what kind of republic Belize may want to be, whether to add new social and economic rights, how to enhance separation of powers between the legislature and executive, how to moderate ministerial powers, how to improve legislative oversight, how to make the electoral system more participatory and representative, and how to mitigate political corruption and entrenched political clientelism. These widely conform with the key concerns identified by the PRC in its 2000 report. While the new constitutional review process has been generally welcomed by civil society groups and political pundits, the unclear criteria for the selection of Commission members quickly became a matter of heated contention. Having rejected a constituent assembly recommendation made by some civil society groups, the government adopted the same 1999 Commission approach of itself identifying representative groups within the society that would then be invited to nominate Commissioners. Even as the number of Commissioners increased from 14 in 1999 to over 20 in a leaked draft of the PCC Bill in July 2022, loud complaints came from various groups and sectors about being excluded. Apart from the media, youth organizations and the Belizean diaspora, the demands for inclusion, in the context of Belize’s multi-ethnic society, came from several cultural and ethnic groups, including the National Kriol Council of Belize

The Bill passed by the National Assembly allows for 25 Commissioners: two representatives each for Belize’s two major political parties, one for all the smaller parties, a representative from the Office of the Prime Minister, and one each from 19 named civil society and sectoral groups. While the independent media and two youth organizations made it onto the schedule,  several groups, including the National Kriol Council, still publicly protested their exclusion, despite the assurances from government that the Act allows for other individuals and groups to be included on sub-committees and for the views of all sectors of Belizean society to be heard.  During and after the Senate debate on the Bill on 24 October, the government further clarified that additional Commissioners can be legally added by a simple ministerial amendment to the membership schedule and that the National Kriol Council will be added via this route. This would bring the total membership of the Commission to 27, including the chairperson who is separately appointed by the prime minister. In addition to casting some doubt on the Commission’s credibility even before it launches, these complaints and the government’s inconsistent response highlight the complex challenges in constitutional reform processes of designing a membership approach that is transparent and representative yet manageable.

First Impressions on Opportunities and Challenges

A few early developments provide elements of hope for Belize’s second opportunity to forge a new constitution. Importantly, the enabling legislation for the 2022 Commission was supported by the UDP Opposition in the National Assembly, providing indispensable bi-partisan credibility at least at the start. Anthony Chanona, a popular former mayor and senator generally regarded as a person of high integrity and independence, has been nominated by Prime Minister Briceño to chair the Commission; however, this has yet to be formalized. While the concerns of exclusion from the Commission will need to be adequately resolved, they also signal that there is keen interest from organized civil society to participate.

It appears that civil society organizations and political parties alike have welcomed the expanded membership and the commitment to a people’s referendum...

It appears that civil society organizations and political parties alike have welcomed the expanded membership and the commitment to a people’s referendum if the outcome of the process so warrants. The 1999 Commission could only make recommendations to parliament, and in addition to limiting the sense of ownership of the process by the people, key proposals of that Commission were ignored or watered down. For the potential of people’s ownership to be realized and for a referendum to be meaningful, the Commission must see itself not as a body of elite constitutional drafters but as a facilitator of a truly consultative process to determine and heed what the people want in a new or reformed Constitution. Although a referendum is at least two years away, in designing its strategies the 2022 Commission should heed the lessons from the failed attempts to approve new constitutions by referenda by St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009, Grenada in 2016 and most recently in Chile this year. These experiences indicate that the people must be made aware of the role of a constitution and have agency in its creation and promotion, that the prospects of divisive partisan splits have to be mitigated, and that the proponents of a new constitution must campaign as effectively as opponents and promote its attributes with simple messages.

Critically, the people’s interest and informed participation in the process will have to be catalysed by a comprehensive and well-resourced public relations and awareness effort led by the Commission itself. This will be no easy task given the complexity of constitutional reform processes and the plethora of urgent social and economic issues that dominate the national agenda. It is positive then that the PCC Act allows for an 18-month process and a potential six- month extension if approved by the Prime Minister.

Conclusion

As was the case with most Commonwealth Caribbean states, the people of Belize had little influence on the constitution inherited from the United Kingdom at independence. As such, it cannot truly be called a people’s constitution. Constitutional amendments since independence have left the basic Westminster governance structure and electoral process of the inherited Independence Constitution largely intact – and the British monarch still reigns as Head of State. For there to be a constitution that advances the decolonization process, the people of Belize will have to agree on how best to address the gaps and weaknesses of the Constitution and governance processes exposed over the past four decades.

The PCC potentially represents the best opportunity since independence to tackle such issues in a new Constitution. A lot must go right for the opportunity to be fully seized by the Commission and by Belizeans and dangers do lurk. Forging and keeping civil society and cross-party support for the process will be critical. In the end, the fate of the reform process may well hinge on how effectively the Commission can stimulate informed public participation and creatively and coherently translate all inputs into a people’s constitution that balances existing political culture with the current aspirations of the Belizean people.

Dr Dylan Vernon, a former civil society leader and former Ambassador of Belize to the European Union, is a political scientist and long-time governance reform advocate. He chaired the Political Reform Commission of Belize in 1999 and is currently the director of D-GoV Consulting Ltd in Belize.

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Suggested citation: Dylan Vernon, ‘Will Belize Get a People’s Constitution? Prospects and Challenges’, ConstitutionNet, International IDEA, 31 October 2022, https://constitutionnet.org/news/will-belize-get-peoples-constitution-prospects-and-challenges

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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