High Time for the Republic of Belize

By Dylan Vernon, (PAST WORK #3, 6 March 2022)

Replacing the British monarch with a Belizean head of state should ideally be just one part of a comprehensive process of constitutional reform and nation-building. However, this does not negate the imperative that doing so has its own intrinsic and independent value that goes beyond mere symbolism. It is unfinished decolonisation pure and simple.

THIS coming weekend’s visit of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge is an opportune reminder of the need to hasten our inevitable transition to the Republic of Belize. It is incredible that 40 years after independence the hereditary monarch of our former imperialist colonizer is still our constitutional head of state. It is a most egregious if symbolic indicator that there is much unfinished business in our decolonization process. The visit is part of the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and ostensibly to shore up monarchical sentiment in the Commonwealth Caribbean – especially after Barbados became a republic in November 2021.  Belize should be next!

Hopeful Signs?

There are a few hopeful signs that Belize could be soon if not next. In July 2021, the National Assembly enacted an amendment to the Governor-General (Conditions of Service) Act that limited the tenure of the new Governor-General to a single seven-year term. Before there was no term limit for the Governor-General – who holds office “at Her Majesty’s pleasure” and as her representative. Could this current Governor-General be Belize’s last? In winding up the debate on the amendment in the House of Representatives, Prime Minister John Briceño hinted that it may be time for Belize to discuss republicanism: “And who knows what is going to happen in the future, because I think it is high time for us to start to look at the type of government, the system we have…whether we want to stay with the parliamentary system or do we want to go to a republican system…or find a hybrid…?”

Then there is the new People’s Constitutional Commission (PCC) which will be launched anytime now with a mandate to review and make recommendations for an amended or new Constitution of Belize. For sure, the issue of removing the British monarch as head of state will be high on the agenda for the PCC and the nation. The PCC should do what the Political Reform Commission (PRC) of 2000 failed to do: unanimously recommend that Belize becomes a republic with its own Belizean head of state. The arguments for and against doing so will be similar to those debated by the PRC some 22 years ago and, for me, the ‘ayes’ have it.

Why do it?

Why ditch the British monarch? Foremost because, as a sovereign democratic and independent state, it is unacceptable in 2022 to have a head of state who, as a hereditary monarch, embodies exactly what is contrary to liberal democracy. Indeed, the British monarch as our head of state is an ‘in-your-face’ reminder of the centuries of British colonial exploitation of Belize and of its on-going legacies.

If done right, the transition of Belize from a parliamentary monarchy to a parliamentary republic (or other kind of republic) could serve a truly nation-building purpose. As the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR) argued way back in 1996, replacing the British monarch can “increase people’s sense of ownership and identification with the nation through a Head of State who is not the cultural and political appendage to another country’s past but rather one who truly embodies and represents our values, experiences and aspirations as a people.”

De-bunking Old Fears

It is always important to debunk the notion that removing Her Majesty as head of state would jeopardize Belize’s membership of the Commonwealth or our good relations with the United Kingdom. Of the 54 countries that are members of the Commonwealth, a full 39 do not have the Queen as head of state and these still participate fully in Commonwealth programmes and most maintain cordial bilateral relations with the UK. These include Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Dominica in the Caribbean. Belize is among only 15 Commonwealth States that still retain the Queen as head of state and changing this will have no substantive bearing on our international relations.

Twenty-two years ago, the debate in the Political Reform Commission on whether to recommend the replacement of the British monarch hinged mostly on the issue of if this could jeopardize Belize’s security considering Guatemala’s unfounded territorial and maritime claim. Indeed, while the majority of PRC commissioners believed that Belize should ditch the British monarch at some time, the ‘security’ agreement likely carried the day. Although it is understandable how some could have been so concerned, I was one of the few commissioners who argued that the security issue did not warrant delaying Belize’s move to a republic. (See page 63 of the report of the PRC for the core arguments). I believed we should not have been concerned then and I suggest that we should not be concerned now. The Guatemala claim is now at the International Court of Justice for resolution and whether Belize has the Queen as head of state or not has no bearing on the judicial victory Belize will soon have there.

Let’s Do it!

If Belize does move to replace the British monarch, how do we do so? The imminent constitutional reform process to be led by a People’s Constitutional Commission can be the perfect conduit to place the issue on the national agenda once again and to collectively construct the best approach for Belize to become a republic – and what kind of republic. What Belizeans decide here will depend, in large part, on whether the coming constitutional reform process is merely an exercise in minor amendments or whether a more revolutionary process results in a new and fit-for-purpose constitution for Belize. Whatever the outcomes, they must have the support of an informed Belizean populace. Forty years after independence, and after incremental adjustments in nine constitutional amendment acts, we deserve a truly progressive approach that goes beyond just replacing the Queen with a Belizean president and keeping all the rest.

Of the eight independent states in the Commonwealth Caribbean that still have the Queen as head of state (represented by a governor general), Belize is the only one that doesn’t need a referendum to abolish its parliamentary monarchy. All that is required is a 2/3 vote in the House of Representatives to amend the Constitution of Belize – meaning the present government could do so with its super majority tomorrow if it wanted. There are strong arguments for a government of Belize to just use the legislature to make Belize a republic (a la Barbados) – not the least of which is the record of failure in the Caribbean to effect constitutional change through referenda. Yet if a recommendation to transition to a republic is part of wider substantive constitutional reform, there will be calls for a national referendum. This may well be where Belize is heading.

Replacing the British monarch with a Belizean head of state should ideally be just one part of a comprehensive process of constitutional reform and nation-building. However, this does not negate the imperative that doing so has its own intrinsic and independent value that goes beyond mere symbolism. It is unfinished decolonization pure and simple. The time has come mee seh

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