Seize the moment for constitution reform before oil

-Carter Center representative urges

The Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center believes that constitutional reform should be addressed before oil begins flowing in 2020, its country representative, Jason Calder says.

The 2020 date represents the first expected inflows of oil revenues and the Center believes that policies proposed and implemented, through an inclusionary constitutional reform process, can stave off or protect against conflicts and the dreaded oil resource curse.

“Some people say now is not the best time and we are getting close to elections, but it is hard to imagine there being a better time after 2020,” Calder told Stabroek News in an interview.

Jason Calder

The government has been criticised for moving slowly on constitutional reform. On Thursday, more than two years after it took office, it tabled a bill that would begin the process.

The Carter Center, which first became engaged actively in Guyana in the early 1990s and has observed several of this country’s elections including the one in 1992 that saw the restoration of democracy, believes that its first-hand encounters here give it an apt understanding of the geopolitical makeup and culture of the land.

It is against this background, and after meeting persons throughout the country and of all strata of society, that Calder posits the view that not only is now the best time to have a constitutional reform process but that the “ordinary man” has a yearning for reforms to archaic laws.

He said that the Center understands, like many Guyanese, that there is “an underlying ethno political conflict here” and that constitutional reform is part of the solution.

“They should grab the opportunity now and there should be a very serious dialogue and discussion. These are the moments in the history of countries, where the political leaders are called upon to try to look beyond the deep furrows of suspicion and antagonism that they have with one another. Look beyond and recognise the need for the larger good of the country, and listen to the larger voices of the people and civil society who are saying ‘this (constitutional reform) is necessary’. This is the moment,” the Carter Center Representative contended.

“The flow of large scale oil revenue can escalate, you know, conflicts because the stakes of those conflicts, political and otherwise are higher. The stakes get higher in the political contest and you have a winner take all system here,” he added.


‘Degree of reconciliation’

Coming out of the 2015 elections, one of things that was of interest to the Carter Center was constitutional reform but to get the process started Calder said that a multi-pronged approach should be taken by government and Guyana’s citizenry.

He offered suggestions to facilitate the dialogue being started holistically. “What other things are a part of that solution? Political dialogue and trust, reckoning with the past that animates  that distrust. Perhaps the need for some degree of reconciliation at all levels.”

He added “Oil is coming. Do you watch Game of Thrones? Then oil is like winter, oil is coming and Guyana can’t expect to necessarily be an exception, to be ahistorical. We have seen the resource curse affect so many countries. It tends to be the exception that a country doesn’t experience the resource curse when oil comes rather than the rule.”

The APNU+AFC government was lauded for the steps it was taking to safeguard against the abuse of resources and oil revenues.

“I think this government is taking steps. The Sovereign Wealth fund, EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) and doing a number of the things you would want to see done as far around the petroleum industry and laws and regulations and that sort of thing,” he stated.

Noted too was the commitment by the David Granger-led administration “to undertaking constitutional reform” and which the Carter Center said was “a critical part” of beginning the process.

“We are pleased of the fact that the government restated its commitment to bringing the legislation forward and potentially having it come up in parliament with the opposition. That is the start and we would like to see that happen. Whether we played a role in that it is hard to say. The UN was here and did their needs assessment …and we have to see if they follow through there,” he said.

But an assessment of why dialogue has not started and why there seems to be no easing of political animosity between parties links to the very parties.

“I think, and it is coming back to, that there is underlying ethno political conflict that animates your politics here, that is tied into the identity of your major groups. And that voting happens on race, therefore contestation of political power is animated by that as well. Both sides perceive their own security and their ability to benefit from the system as dependent on how their political parties fare in those contest. Identity conflicts behave this way, whether it is…Hindu/Muslim or its ethnic or even in the United States where it has become liberal/conservative.

“Our identities  have become political positions, and when these things are tied in, you have issues of security and honour …and a lot of symbolism gets caught up in the political contest for power. It is not just about ideas and policies. I think there is an element here in Guyana. That is why we think now is the time to have a serious discussion on it,” he added.

Calder said that founder of the Carter Center, former United States President, Jimmy Carter, still pays attention to what happens in Guyana and from time to time asks about the country. He said that constitutional reform here was one issue that Carter remains interested in.  Carter visited Guyana for the 2015 general elections but had to leave early after he fell ill.

Coming out of the last elections, when the Carter Center was considering getting engaged on other issues, constitutional reform was one area it  considered and held a symposium earlier this year “to get a sense of what were some of the views on the issues to get a sense of where the process was at that time.” It was “a drop in the bucket to getting that conversation started,” Calder said.

But lack of funding has seen a programme not catered for. “At this time the Center doesn’t have any plans or funds to get engaged in constitutional reform. But should the government and conceivably the opposition and civil society see a role to be played by the Carter Center in that issue and overtures (are) made, that would be the start of a discussion…where  it could lead to some kind of work or support.

But the nation should not expect a “running commentary” from the Center on constitutional reform here as it “don’t normally just speak out on issues” but would use opportunities to highlight matters of national interest and democracy.

As a nonpartisan organisation it also would not make recommendations on what changes should be made since it feels it is the country’s citizenry to decide.

“We wouldn’t necessarily put a stake down that you should have a consociational system or go back to first-past-the-post or something like that. I think the decision to reform your constitution and in what direction you reform that constitution, needs to be part of a national dialogue and among all of the players.”

“Organisations like the Carter Center can help support that sort of initiative if we could be helpful if all the stakeholders were to come forward. I don’t think anybody wants to put down some sort of decree what direction constitutional reform should go in. That is for Guyanese to do and to decide and need to have and to answer the question why we need constitutional reform.”

To the organisation’s critics, Calder said many are uninformed as to their mission here.

“There is the common comment, that because the Carter Center is an American organisation that we are coming down here, and when we are invited to Guyana to observe elections and to comment on those elections, that somehow our point of comparison is the United States elections. That could not be further from the truth.

“Our election observation process is based on the country’s own laws and what is known as international elections standards. So we are evaluating a country’s election process not comparing it to the US. President Carter has been critical of America’s own election process…We don’t come here judging Guyana on the basis of US elections standards. We are applying Guyana’s own laws and international standards which is laid out in .We are an NGO a civil society organization we are independent from US foreign policy,” he added.

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