GHRA calls for civil society-led constitutional reform process

- in human rights day message

The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) is advocating for a civil society-led constitutional reform process following national elections, as this will better ensure the formulation of a Bill of Rights that “will remain close to its origins in the propensity to care….”

In a message to mark International Human Rights Day, which was observed yesterday, the GHRA said, “The essence of what makes us human is our propensity to care about the dignity of every person.”

It said the commemoration provides an opportunity to recall that it is this inherent instinct which prompts the affront we feel when witnessing human rights abuses.

“Unfortunately, the human rights section of the Guyana Constitution has codified the life out of this instinctive sense of human solidarity,” the GHRA said. According to the group, the Guyana Constitution “is obsessed with the limitations on the rights available to Guyanese citizens more than a statement of the rights themselves….It is not surprising, therefore, that the society is marked by so much callousness and casual cruelty.”

The GHRA submitted that in most societies, this process of identifying human rights values and the institutions to uphold them is the centre-piece of constitution-making. “A national constitution encompasses nation-building in terms of the values by which we want the State to be

governed, balancing the demands of justice, equality and freedom of citizens. It also highlights the qualities we want to see in persons charged with governing the society. Good laws alone are not a substitute for personal integrity in elected officials,” the group said.

The group opined that the Guyanese society has never enjoyed the benefits of an open and fully participatory process of constitution-making, as it moved from being governed by constitutions first imposed by imperial powers to the current 1980 constitution enacted by Parliament, “following a Referendum in 1978 in which the [voter] turnout was estimated at 14.01%.”

The GHRA is convinced that “the profound dysfunctionality of Guyanese political life is directly traceable to the current 1980 Constitution, which was written to provide a legal façade for the virtually imperial powers Prime Minister Burnham had accumulated…” Further, it noted, “Despite years of the calling for the Constitution to be scrapped, when the PPP took office in 1992, it found the Constitution surprisingly useful and postponed reforming it.”

Following political upheaval in the late 1990s, a constitutional reform process mandated as part of the Hermandston Accord in 1999 made some headway in reforming the worst excesses of the 1980 Constitution. However, even though the Reform Commission received many good proposals from citizens, its report then fell into the hands of the Parliamentary Oversight Committee as part of the approval procedure and was stripped of much of its potency, the group said.

While there is no alternative to reforming the overly-powerful state in keeping with a vision and values for a modern Guyanese state, “lessons from the past clearly indicate that this important task cannot be left to politicians alone.” The GHRA is calling for the establishment of a civil society-led constitutional reform process after elections. It noted that the new Parliament must be confronted with an irresistible demand for constitutional reform which it believes can be achieved through a civil society driven process as this will ensure the establishment of a Bill of Rights “that will remain close to its origins in the propensity to care and will be written in language accessible to everyone.”