The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and the business community yesterday expressed concern at the move by the David Granger administration to suspend the Standing Orders to allow three bills to go through the entire parliamentary process at today’s sitting of the National Assembly.
The GHRA said that the anti-terrorism bill in its present state would allow the State to perpetrate serious violations of due process.
However, Minister of Governance Raphael Trotman has defended the move saying that government is acting within the Standing Orders and the Constitution. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo is expected to move a motion in the House to suspend the Standing Orders to allow the three bills to be laid, debated, and passed at today’s sitting.
The bills are the Municipal and District Councils and Local Authorities (Amendment) Bill, the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism (Amendment) Bill and the Anti-Terrorism and Terrorist Related Activities Bill.
The opposition PPP/C had expressed concern on Tuesday and branded the government move a flagrant violation of parliamentary democracy. “This move by the government to deny scrutiny and to rush through these bills further exposes the new administration for its undemocratic actions. Their actions fly in the face of positions taken by the APNU/PNCR/PNCR-IG and AFC in previous parliaments,” the PPP had said in a statement.
Yesterday, the Ministry of the Presidency in a statement reported Trotman as saying that the three bills, are critical to good governance and the strengthening of democracy and as such, they cannot and should not be delayed, when the law provides for it to be done in such a manner.
“Erskine May on Parliamentary Practice (24ed) expressly states that: “…except in cases of urgent and pressing necessity, no motion may be made to dispense with any sessional or Standing Order of the House, without due notice, …However, Standing Orders are frequently suspended, if good cause is shown, to permit bills – more especially bills brought from the other House at a late period of the session to proceed without the usual intervals and notices,” he was quoted as saying.
Trotman, the immediate past Speaker of the National Assembly, had refused to answer questions from reporters on the matter when approached following a post-cabinet press briefing yesterday.
The GHRA, in a statement yesterday condemned the proposed move to suspend the Standing Orders saying that rushing the anti-terrorism bill through the house cannot be justified. “In its present state this Bill would allow the State to perpetrate serious violations of due process and fair trial rights and should not be allowed to pass into law,” it declared.
“This affront to Parliament is compounded by allowing less than two days for Parliamentarians to analyse a Bill of 107 pages,” the human rights body said.
“Rushing Bills through Parliament is only acceptable in evident emergencies where seriously adverse consequences are predictable. The Bill in question meets neither of these tests,” the body charged. It added that while similar comments may equally apply to the other two bills, the GHRA is not sufficiently appraised of the circumstances of either to comment on them.
The GHRA recalled that in the case of the anti-terrorism bill, the GHRA, along with others were invited by the Attorney-General’s Chambers to comment on the draft in July 2015.
“A GHRA submission which benefitted from local and overseas expertise recommending well over thirty amendments was submitted to the AG. In view of the seriousness of the proposed Bill, our submission concluded with the following paragraph: The GHRA believes that the draft should not be rushed through to adoption, allowing for fuller comment and reaction in Guyana. Moreover, given the complexity of this Bill, Guyana ought to seek and receive a more formal assessment of the draft law, perhaps from one of the UN technical agencies,” the body said.
“Not one of the recommendations from the GHRA submission has merited inclusion in the draft Bill to be debated (today),” it asserted.
The GHRA said that fortunately, terrorism is not the problem in Guyana that it is in other parts of the world.
“Since we aspire to be governed by the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights, some of the draconian features in the proposed legislation are not justified, particularly the vague definitions which allow a wide range of acts to be considered ‘support’ for terrorism, or fall under the ‘duty of disclosure,’” the human rights body declared.
The GHRA said that the definition of “terrorist act” in the bill, for example, would include an act which is “likely to cause prejudice to national security,” and “is intended to compel a Government to do or refrain from doing an act or to intimidate the public or a section thereof.”
“The language regarding “prejudice to national security” is also too vague and capable of abuse. The additional inclusion of acts which are likely merely “to cause damage to property” is also unacceptably vague,” the statement declared. It added that a much better definition than these vague formulations in Section 17, 18 and 19, is to be found in the Terrorism Financing Convention.
The bill has not been made available to the general public and up to last evening, it was not posted on the website of the Official Gazette.
Meantime, the GHRA said that on the positive side, the definition also includes reference to certain clauses of the international counter-terrorism conventions, as well an exclusionary clause which excludes from the definition, acts “committed in furtherance of a demonstration, protest,” etc.
However, the GHRA said that these features may not be sufficient to remedy the vagueness of the above two elements of the core definition.
It noted that more than ten new terrorist-related offences attract the death penalty, while “life imprisonment” is defined as “for the remainder of the natural life of the offender.”
“This definition is incorrect. It should not be adopted either as a discretionary or mandatory definition of life imprisonment. This definition is also internally contradictory in the Bill,” the GHRA declared.
It said that other recommendations made by the GHRA encourage judicial discretion in sentencing to avoid repeating the cruelty perpetrated by mandatory sentencing in the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act. A ‘sunset’ provision is also recommended, i.e. a limit to the life of the Act in order to provide an opportunity to assess its application at a later stage, the statement said.
It added that the GHRA also recommended that Guyana could set an important precedent by inserting in the law a Section providing for the establishment of “an Advisory Committee on Human Rights and Terrorism.” Such a committee would advise on the implementation of the eventual Act and could be led by a senior judge, including among others, representatives from civil society, the statement said.
No apparent consultation
Meantime, the Private Sector Commission (PSC) said that it was surprised and concerned to learn from the media that an amendment to the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Act and a new Anti-Terrorism and Terrorist Related Activities Bill are about to be tabled and read in Parliament with no apparent consultation with the business community.
“There is growing concern regarding consultation and we would hope that this latest example will be the last piece of legislation done in this manner. Vital pieces of legislation should and must be brought to the attention of affected stakeholders from civil society and the private sector so that Article 13 of the Constitution is implemented,” the PSC said in a statement.
“The Private Sector Commission is as concerned as the Government is that the country should be compliant with international requirements but is equally concerned that all law-abiding stakeholders should be protected,” it added.
Trotman, in the Ministry of the Presidency statement said that the bills are expected to ensure that citizens participate in the long-awaited local government elections, while guaranteeing Guyana’s international standing in the global fight against criminality, money laundering and terrorism.
“The timely passage of these Bills, before the end of 2015, is a national imperative and the Government expects to receive the full support of the Opposition in the debate and passage of the Bills,” he was quoted as saying.
He did not say why it was imperative that the bills be passed before the end of the year or why they weren’t brought earlier.
According to Trotman, it is universally accepted that the demands of a situation allow for a government to take a bill through all three stages of debate at one sitting, and this has been the recognised practice in the pre and post-independence era.
“It is a long and accepted practice in the Westminster Parliamentary System that government business must take priority, and that from time to time, the Standing Orders and Rules are amended or suspended to allow for this to happen,” he said.
He accused the PPP/C of being hypocritical and mischievous in its claims that government is subverting the parliamentary process in taking the bills through the stages of debate at one sitting. According to the statement, Trotman said that all governments, and especially the PPP have utilised this option; often times with the support of the then Opposition.
“In January and March of 2007 respectively, the then PPP government utilised the permissible Standing Orders to take several Bills through all stages of debate on a single occasion, Bills addressing the movement and migration of persons for Cricket World Cup 2007, and the deployment of disciplined forces on a CARICOM mission, were approved in one day, and after very short notice,” he said.