Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand’: Lessons for Constitutional Reform from 1990s Belize (Part 1)

By Dylan Vernon, Real Story #6, 8 December 2023.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.” This timeless piece of political wisdom from Frederick Douglas has been critical to determining the degree of success or failure of constitutional reform processes around the globe. So will it be for the current People’s Constitution Commission in Belize. Without informed and sustained advocacy from a critical mass of Belizeans, the odds are slim for a new or reformed constitution that meaningfully returns more power to the people and improves the quality of Belize’s democracy. In this regard, it is imperative to explore the lessons and impact of Belize’s first post-independence constitutional reform exercise – the Political Reform Commission of 1999-2000. (Image shows ten of the fourteen PRC Commissioners in 1999, names given below).

 The First Commission

A few people have incorrectly referred to the current People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) as Belize’s first comprehensive constitutional review process since independence. That it is second to the Political Reform Commission (PRC) of 1999-2000 does not make the PCC any less important. However, it is unfortunate that the PRC, including the historic people’s process that led to it, has gotten so little attention in the current national debate on constitutional reform.  In part, this reflects lack of awareness of even recent constitutional history as well as the ahistorical short-termism that dominates the public discourse. Importantly, when the PRC completed its work 23 years ago in January 2000, near to half (46%) of the current population was not yet born. And to have been at the voting age of 18 years at that time (and possibly have had some exposure to the PRC), one would have had to be born in 1982.

Trivial though it may seem, a degree of indifference to the PRC may also be related to the fact that it did not have the term ‘constitution’ in its name. The PRC was commissioned in January 1999 by then Prime Minister Said Musa (seen in image), whose People’s United Party (PUP) had won the 1998 general election by a landslide. The Musa government choose the term ‘political’ because it encompasses both constitutional and governance reform matters – the latter referring to ordinary legislation and public policies. As such, the core mandate to the PRC from Prime Minister Musa was:

“To review the system of governance and make recommendations for its improvements, whether by amendments to the Constitution or the laws or otherwise, with a view to achieving greater democracy and justice. This means you can range as widely as you wish or as your consultations [with the people] require.”

Consequently, the PRC’s mandate was broader than that of the current PCC, which is singularly focused on constitutional reform. As it turned out, of the 103 recommendations made by the PRC, a vast majority of 74 recommendations were directly related to constitutional reform, while the other 29 addressed only ordinary law and policies (non-constitutional). Regrettably, there has been no independent implementation assessment nor impact assessment of the fate of the PRC’s recommendations. I am currently conducting research to help fill that void – likely to be a chapter in my next book – and I will share some of the findings in TIME COME as relevant. But first, let’s recall how the PRC itself came about.

SPEAR on Target

The decision of the Musa government to appoint the PRC in 1999 did not come out of the blue. It was the direct result of well-organised people’s advocacy that was sustained for near to five years at the national level. For many, this long-sought victory by Belizean civil society still stands out as the most effective illustration of political power conceding to popular demand in Belize’s post-independence history.

While a handful of organisations, such as the Belize Bar Association, had put out proposals for constitutional amendments in the early 1990s, it was not until January 1994 that a sustained campaign for political and constitutional reform began in earnest. The ‘National Campaign for Political Reform’ was designed and led by the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR), one of Belize’s largest and most successful political advocacy NGOs of the 1990s. Understanding that meaningful participation was impossible without public awareness, SPEAR’s campaign began with a two-year education and media campaign – reaching tens of thousands across Belize.

Simultaneously, SPEAR stimulated the creation of a national alliance of NGOs and community groups to join and strengthen the advocacy effort. By 1996, this led to the formation of the Civil Society Steering Committee, made up of national NGO networks, unions and community groups, and then to the convening of Belize’s First Summit of Civil Society. That 1996 Summit, under the theme ‘Putting People Back in Democracy’ featured 96 NGOs and community groups represented by over 200 people. By 1997, the people’s political reform train was unstoppable, and the two major political parties were forced to take note.

Tangible Results of People Power

In addition to building public awareness on the Constitution and converging the largest alliance of non-partisan groups in the post-independence era, the SPEAR-led political reform campaign produced noteworthy tangible outputs. Three of these are worth recalling and reviewing. One was a cartoon booklet series on the Constitution of Belize produced by SPEAR in 1995/1996 (illustrated by Charles Chavannes) that were highly popular with Belizeans during the advocacy campaign. These were the Constitution as Supreme Law: A Manual of the Constitution and Your Rights and Individual Rights: A Manual of the Constitution and Your Rights. While parts of these booklets have bits that need updating, there would be great benefit to reproducing them, perhaps in video animation format, for the current constitutional review exercise.

A second memorable output was SPEAR’s 1996 advocacy booklet titled Democracy in Crisis: Ten Proposals for Political Reform, which was used to stimulate debate on people’s recommendations for specific reforms. (I will share a link to this booklet on TIME COME shortly. Its front cover is the third image in this post). Over ten thousand copies were distributed nationwide. SPEAR’s 1996 argument for political reform still rings true almost three decades later in 2023:

“Democracy in Belize is in crisis. Excessive concentration of political power, rampant official corruption, and growing public disillusionment permeate all aspects of the political process. Urgent reform of the system is essential if Belizeans are to successfully and collectively meet the socio-economic challenges of the new millennium. Governance of the nation must be based on a new vision of human and sustainable development and on principles of effective separation of powers, people’s participation and accountability at all levels of authority.”

The third output worthy of mention represents the climax of the political reform campaign before the August 1998 general election: The People’s Manifesto: Century 21. This People’s Manifesto, the product of the Second Summit of Civil Society in December 1997, was a comprehensive declaration of people’s demands of what they wanted to accomplish in coordination with the political party that won the 1998 election. At its core were key constitutional and political reform demands, presented as commitments that people, NGOs and political parties were requested to make. The very first two commitments were for the appointment of an official national political reform commission with civil society at the helm, and for the reform proposals that had emanated from the political reform campaign to be acted upon by this commission.

The People’s Manifesto was publicly released in a huge public assembly of civil society during which all the NGO networks and major organisations signed a pledge to support it. Political parties were also requested to review and then sign onto the manifesto’s commitments. The members of the Civil Society Steering Committee kept the advocacy pressure high in the months leading to the August 1998 election.

All the smaller political parties did sign on. The then Opposition PUP eventually signed on to most of the commitments and included some of these in its own 1998 party Manifesto. However, the governing United Democratic Party (UDP), which had failed to establish a workable reform commission in its 1993-1998 term, refused to sign on to any commitment – arguing arrogantly and wrongly that it had accomplished almost all that the People’s Manifesto demanded. The 1998 UDP Manifesto was near to silent on political reform issues. These PUP and UDP reactions once again proved true that political parties tend to ignore popular demands for reform when in power, while embracing them when in opposition.

The Big Win: the PRC

While the PUP under the leadership of Prime Minister Said Musa certainly deserves much credit for taking the historic decision to establish Belize’s first constitutional reform commission in 1999, I am convinced that it would not have come to be without popular demand led by civil society organisations. Said Musa himself, sounding ‘Douglasesque’, responded to a question on political reform in 2003 by saying that “the simple truth is that governments respond to pressure groups and lobby groups. Civil society should not expect a government out of the foundation of its wisdom to move on with the political reform agenda” (see note below for reference).

In the case of the PRC, the Musa government conceded to the demand of the Civil Society Steering Committee that civil society be given the right to nominate the chairperson of the PRC, that NGOs should form the majority of its membership and to have a Secretariat that was independent from government with its own budget. Including the chairperson, the PRC had 14 commissioners, four of whom represented the PUP and the UDP (two members each). The other 10 commissioners represented civil society organisations. In addition to Chairperson Dylan Vernon representing the Association of National Development Agencies, the other commissioners were Godwin Hulse, Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry; Douglas Singh, United Democratic Party; Melvin Hulse Jr., United Democratic Party; Senator Eamon Courtenay, People’s United Party; Senator Dickie Bradley, People’ s United Party; Ernest Castro, National Garifuna Council; Rev. Moises Chan, Belize Council of Churches; Fred Hunter Sr., Belize Business Bureau; Eduardo Melendez, National Trade Union Congress of Belize;  Carolyn Trench-Sandiford, Association of Senior Public Managers; Carolyn Williams, Women’s Issues Network; Silvana Woods, Media Association; and Lois Young-Barrow, Belize Bar Association. (Ten of the commissioners are shown in the first image in this post).

As the PRC began its one-year mandate in January 1999, it had three invaluable advantages over the current PCC – all the direct result of civil society proactivity. The first was that a significant portion of the population had been exposed to over four years of public education and debate on the Constitution and the system of governance. The second was the existence of a well-organised and well-resourced network of non-state organisations to facilitate further political reform actions. By extension, the 10 PRC commissioners representing NGOs all had more than basic knowledge of constitutional and governance matters. Thirdly, the reform campaign had stimulated the development of a substantial set of proposals for constitutional and political reform – both from NGOs and from political parties. In short, there were well-developed proposals ready to put into the mix.

This all helps to explain why the PRC succeeded in completing its mandate in the twelve months it was given. While conducting its first familiarisation review of the Constitution, the PRC was able to begin to look at reform proposals quite early in its work. And when it did its extensive public engagement, it was possible not only to merge the education and consultation phases rather seamlessly, but also to seek feedback on substantive reform proposals. Yet it was a gruelling year of dedicated and long-hours of work for the PRC commissioners. The PRC met in 26 all day (sometimes multi-day) sessions, held public consultations nationwide (though not enough), hosted its own national radio show called ‘Rock Di System’, and designed and distributed tens of thousands of information and consultation resources.

The PRC Report and the Government’s Response

In introducing its 103 recommendations for constitutional reform and political reform in the Final Report of the Political Reform Commission of 11 January 2000, the PRC summarised the priority concerns it had heard from the people of Belize. How surprising would it be if the current PCC does not find these still to be among the key concerns of many Belizeans 23 years later in 2023?

  • Official corruption and lack of accountability of elected and public officials.
  • Doubts about the independence and effectiveness of the courts of justice.
  • Excessive partisan control and division.
  • Lack of people’s participation in the system.
  • Lack of women in positions of political leadership.
  • The system does not work effectively for the poor.
  • Excessive centralization of powers in the prime minister and the cabinet.
  • Ineffective separation of powers between the executive and legislature and the judiciary.
  • The House and Senate are largely rubber stamps.
  • Still having a foreign monarch as Belize’s Head of State.
  • Lack of regulation of political parties and campaign financing.
  • A political culture characterized by fear, victimization, passivity, and dependence.
  • Lack of education about the Constitution and system of governance.

As noted, 74 of the 103 PRC recommendations were on constitutional reform and 29 were limited to political reform – related to ordinary legislation and public policies. In my next TIME COME piece on the impact of PRC, I will be taking a closer look at government’s reaction to specific PRC recommendations. For now, and based on my comprehensive revisiting of the PRC Final Report, I will leave you with a Table of government’s response to those PRC recommendations that directly related to reforming the Constitution.

By way of introduction to the Table, it is essential to acknowledge that, of the 74 PRC recommendations on the Constitution, 47 would have required constitutional amendments either to revise existing articles or to add new articles. The other 27 of the 74, while related to the Constitution, were those in which the PRC recommended that no amendments be made – even if it had received proposals to amend.  In examining the then PUP governments’ (1998 – 2003 and 2003 – 2008) response, it makes sense to assess those 47 that required positive amendment action. These 47 are placed in three categories: enacted in full, enacted in part, rejected.

Apart from this clearly mixed record on the response to the PRC recommendations on the Constitution, the PUP governments of 1998 to 2008 also made three constitutional amendments that were not recommended by the PRC. Additionally, of the 29 non-constitutional (related to ordinary law and policies) recommendations of the PRC, the majority were ignored or only implemented in part.

So, which PRC recommendations made it? Which did not and why? How did the government do? What were the wins for civil society? How can we assess the impact on people’s lives? And what does this all mean for the PCC today? Look out for my discussion of these questions in my next TIME COME post. After that post, it will be on to advocating proposals for current constitutional reforms.

Note: Apart from the linked references in this post, the information and insights I provide come from (a) my personal participation in the constitutional reform processes of the 1990s: I coordinated the SPEAR political reform campaign from 1994-1998 and I was the chairperson of the PRC and prepared its Final Report; and (b) subsequent research and monitoring of constitutional reform developments.  The quote from Said Musa is from Civil Society Organizations in Belize: A Rapid Assessment of their Capacity to Influence and Monitor Public Policy by Dr Herman Byrd, 2003.

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