The Sovereign’s incomplete agenda

The regime may feel that the sovereignty of the Guyanese people can only be violated by foreigners, but in this it is mistaken, and no one will take its cry of national sovereignty seriously if it is itself seen as a violator of the sovereignty of its own people. Make no mistake, either deliberately or by ignorance and/or default, local government is not the only area in which the political establishment has hijacked the sovereignty of the Guyanese people.

The political disturbances that occurred in the aftermath of the 1997 election were put to rest by the Herdmanston Accord, and the St. Lucia Statement brokered by the Caribbean Community and signed by President Janet Jagan and Leader of the People’s National Congress, Mr. Desmond Hoyte, in 1998.

future notesAs we saw last week, among other things, on constitution reform the Herdmanston Accord called for the establishment of a Constitutional Reform Commission with a wide mandate and a broad-based membership drawn from representatives of political parties, the labour movement, religious organizations, the private sector, youth and other social partners. It stated that

“(1)…. The Terms of Reference of the Commission and its membership will be determined by the National Assembly after a process of consultations with political parties. It will be mandated to consult with civil society at large.

(ii) The Commission will also be mandated to conclude its deliberations and present its reports to the National Assembly within eighteen months of 17 January 1998. The process for implementing the changes recommended by the Commission and approved by the National Assembly to be concluded in sufficient time to allow for post-reform general election which will be held within eighteen months after the presentation of the report of the Commission to the National Assembly.

(iii) Among the matters to be addressed by the Constitutional Reform Commission will be measures and arrangements for the improvement of race relations in Guyana, including the contribution which equal opportunities legislation and concepts drawn from the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society can contribute to the cause of justice, equity, and progress in Guyana.”

It is important to note that this document does not speak to the parliament or the president but emphasizes the national assembly, largely because it was brokered by Caribbean countries in which Westminster-type political systems exist.

In such systems, rarely does the usually titular head of state veto a bill that has been passed in the national assembly. However, this is precisely what happened in Guyana, not to an ordinary bill, but to one that was the outcome of a broad constitutional reform process that was both numerically and institutionally more representative of the people than the political establishment and more specifically, the presidency. Not surprising then that it caused concern to Mr. Haslyn Parris, who wrote.

“The second set of amendments is a history-making one! Never before in the history of Guyana has a bill unanimously approved by the National Assembly failed to be assented to by the President. This however, is the status of Bill No. 18 of 2000, dated 15th December, 2000, which was unanimously approved by the National Assembly on 4th January 2001. The Bill, as stated in its ‘Explanatory Memorandum’, sought to elevate certain articles in Chapter 11 from principles to fundamental rights. It also confers new fundamental right and human rights, including elevating to a fundamental right through the new Article 149C, the role of the trade unions and cooperatives in decision-making processes of the State.  The President’s refusal to assent has been verbally explained by him to arise from his (and the Council of Churches) objection to the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation in the new Articles 149 (2). …… The refusal to assent to Bill No. 18 of 2000 has far-reaching implication for a number of areas including the functioning of the Rights Commission” in the new Constitution.”

It appears that all, except the sexual orientation amendments, were eventually incorporated into the constitution but as we have seen, religious groups were represented on the Constitutional Reform Commission that recommended the changes and the bill was passed unanimously by the National Assembly. The question therefore arises: upon whose authority was the president acting and can the president change rules after a broad cross-section of the people has agreed upon them? The president’s action also gave rise to even more important constitutional questions.

For example, the Constitutional Reform Commission recommended that “articles 1, 2, 8, 9, 18, 51, 66, 89, 99, 111, and this article (164) and (b) any fundamental rights provision, of this Constitution…” be taken to the wider people by way of referendum, but to this day this has not happened and the opposition is most complicit in this omission!

Furthermore, if the president can refuse to pass a bill that originated from the commission can he also reject one that has gained the majority at a referendum? After all, he is properly place to do so for the constitution states that such Bills “shall not be submitted to the president for his assent unless the Bill … after its passage through the National Assembly, … been submitted to the vote of the electors qualified to vote in an elections and has been approved by a majority of the electors who voted on the Bill.”

I concluded last week that sovereignty does not rest with the president, the parliament, the national assembly or the courts: it rests with the people. So when the sovereign people of Guyana are being disrespected by the political establishment how is its authority to be enforced?

It seems to me that there are three fundamental ways in which sovereign authority is usually enforced. Firstly, as we have been seeing near and far recently, the people can rebel.

Indeed, it was one such rebellion that resulted in our constitutional reforms of the late 1990s.  Secondly, appeal may be made to the judiciary in so far as it has not been already subverted by the political establishment.

Finally, it would be best, if the political establishment itself recognises the need for it to complete and possibly update the sovereign’s agenda.  After all, the people themselves realized that changes would be inevitable, hence the preamble to the present Constitution: “As citizens of Guyana, we adopt these fundamental laws and make provision for their amendment to reflect future changes in our society, inspired by our collective quest for a perfect union, whose characteristics include the commitment, concepts, and other principles proclaimed in the preamble.”

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