Talking About a Revolution? Fifteen Proposals for a People’s Constitution

By Dylan Vernon, TIME COME #6, 3 April 2024.

What should be in the Constitution of Belize to truly make it a ‘People’s Constitution’? We complain and, sometimes, even agree about what’s wrong, but finding common, enduring and impactful reforms elude us. In this TIME COME, I share some pieces of the puzzle that I believe are needed for framing meaningful constitutional change. These fifteen proposals evolve from long years of analysis and advocacy for political reforms that enhance both formal and social democracy. They are not all original nor exhaustive but hopefully provocative. Some will be deemed too radical, a few too conservative. But it is crystal clear that incremental partisan constitutional tinkering since independence has failed miserably to tackle the core threats to the quality of our democracy and national development. It’s high time for revolutionary constitutional thinking and action.

A Constitution – More Than Fancy Words

If Belize’s expensive education system and if the current People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) were on the ball, more Belizeans would know that our Constitution should not be distant from our common aspirations, problems and lived realities. More Belizeans would know why our Constitution and its reform are crucially important for our enjoyment of human rights, for better governance and for the public issues that affect our daily livelihoods – jobs, taxes, education, roads, security, housing, healthcare etc.

In principle and practice, a people’s constitution should be a living political and social contract, home-grown by and for the Belizean people, that lays out our shared values, aspirations and rights. It is our consensus on how we make national decisions, how we resolve disputes and how we live together. In essence, it is our supreme national agreement on lending our precious people power to elected representatives and public officials (the government) in the interest of effective governance for the common good of all.

Unfortunately, that ‘common good’ bit is often side-lined – largely reduced to political rhetoric. But think about it! Once all Belizeans agree on a democratic constitution that lays out our rights and rules for governance, and once we have an elected government, what is our constitution for? It cannot be just for formal and electoral democracy. As a former colony, as a developing country with a young democracy, Belize’s constitution must also reflect on-going decolonisation, enhance people’s engagement, promote sustainable development and contribute to a more equal and just Belizean society. In short, our constitution must also enable social democracy – for the on-going improvement of all Belizean lives.

Increasing people’s awareness and connection to their constitution must be ever-present in our national development goals – not just when we have these rare constitutional reviews. This is  good place for me to reiterate that any new or reformed constitution must be not only be written or re-written in simpler, less legal and gender-neutral language, but must also be made intimately familiar to every Belizean. That is, or should be, the easy part. But what should we put in this new people’s constitution?

What Needs Fixing Most

Let me briefly recap what I have long-argued needs most fixing and changing. After almost 43 years of working our inherited independence Constitution there is a much evidence to inform us. Despite persistent public concerns, several reform campaigns, ten post-independence amendment acts, one comprehensive constitutional review (1999), and some ‘Belizeanization’ of Westminster; the basic structure of the 1981 Constitution remains intact. Constitutionally, the structural and cultural political influences that dominate are still anglophile – as inherited from the British colonizers. For example, in 2022, a British King replaced a British Queen as our Head of State by miraculous ascension – Belizeans had no say. And our electoral system is still winners-take-all.

I could go on, but the brutal and disillusioning truth is that Belize’s constitutional challenges in 2024 are not much different from 1994 (when SPEAR began its political reform campaign), from 1999 (when the Political Reform Commission launched) nor from 2020 (when unions marched in the thousands for reform). One way to begin to stew down the primary concerns that still plague our constitutional practice and inherited political system is to focus on seven broad problem areas:

  1. Weak or absent rights for social democracy and socio-economic justice.
  2. The failure of effective separation of powers, especially between the Executive and the Legislature.
  3. Excessive centralization of and abuse of executive powers.
  4. Locking out of underrepresented voices by the skewed electoral system.
  5. Limited opportunities for on-going people’s participation in decision-making.
  6. Rampant public corruption and political clientelism with blatant impunity.
  7. Muddled, short-term and poorly implemented national policies.

Thinking out of the Box of Colonial Legacy

Of course, not everything is awful about Belize’s current democracy and Constitution. For instance, since independence we have had basic civil liberties, six peaceful changes of government, elections with high turnouts and an active civil society sector that operates freely. Yet, while building on these and other positives, political and constitutional reform debates are more about fixing what is not working right and adding what is missing.

While not reinventing the entire constitutional wheel, we also must not be chained to the box of colonial legacy. On the one hand, this means assessing what other states have done and reassessing our own reform proposals made since independence but were rejected by the political elite. More crucially, Belizeans should not shy away from forging unique constitutional elements fit for our own context, needs and times. Let us not get boxed in or divided by labels and features of existing political or electoral systems. Nothing stops us from putting new spokes and tires on a re-designed wheel – and calling it what we want.

Yet there is that thing called ‘Belizean political culture’ that will influence constitutional remaking. Some will reject a reform proposal outright because it goes against the inherited colonial structure or other aspects of a nebulous political culture. However, we must acknowledge that, as with all culture, not everything about Belizean political culture is good and deserves preservation. For example, the widespread political cultural belief that politicians are ‘running for minister’ makes a mockery of the legislative process. Getting handouts from politicians is part of our political culture, but it’s damaging our democracy and development. Having political leadership dominated by men seems to be an aspect of our political culture but there is nothing noble about that. In short, like constitutions, our political culture must change with the times and give way to new elements, new culture.

It would be naïve to contend that a new or reformed constitution is a panacea to address all Belize’s national problems. As our own recent history shows, a constitution can mean nothing without people’s awareness and capacity to use it in their best interests. Fortunately, we also have a little evidence that it can be a powerful tool for social justice, especially when people are conscious and organized – for example, on the Maya land rights issue and the decriminalization of homosexuality. In short, our constitution is not only what we put in it but also what we make of it.

 Fifteen Proposals for a People’s Constitution

If we accept, for now, the seven critical areas of constitutional and political concerns I prioritised above; a new constitution by and for the people must seek to:

  • Expand fundamental rights and freedoms with a focus on social democracy.
  • Better ensure that the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary perform their roles and exercise their powers independently of each other.
  • Make Executive power more decentralized and accountable.
  • Reform the electoral system to better reflect the voices and faces of the people.
  • Enhance people’s participation in decision-making at all levels between elections.
  • Regulate the influence of money in politics and punish public corruption.
  • Enhance the quality of public policy development and implementation.

I now outline fifteen conceptual proposals on how the people and nation of Belize can better achieve these seven goals through radical constitutional re-making.

  1. Strengthen the Preamble and Clarify its Judicial Use

The Preamble should be the part of the Constitution which Belizeans most identify with. As such, it should better set out the identity, values and aspirations of the nation and people of Belize. The existing Preamble provides a good basis, but it should be condensed and revised to:

  • Recall and celebrate the post-1950’s struggle for decolonization that resulted in the Independence Constitution and independent state of Belize.
  • Declare that Belize is a secular democratic state founded on core principles of humanity, including those which acknowledge spiritual and moral values. The term ‘supremacy of God’ is unnecessary for the full protection of individual and group religious rights and freedoms.
  • State Belize’s identity as multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state in which all ethnicities and languages are respected without discrimination.
  • The Preamble does not need to include a listing of rights and freedoms that are protected if these are adequately covered in the Part on fundamental rights and freedoms. There can be a general normative statement that policies of state are required that protect rights and freedoms as defined and enshrined in the substantive sections on fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • However, if rights and freedoms are specifically listed in the Preamble, these should be expanded to include the new rights and freedoms listed at Proposal #2 below.
  • Add a statement that no policy should discriminate against persons based on sexual orientation.
  • Strengthen the call for policies that protect the environment.
  • Introduce the principle of the civic responsibilities of Belizean citizens, which will then be expanded later in the Constitution. (See Proposal #3).
  • Clearly state the Constitution is based on the principle of the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers.
  • Clarify the question as to whether or which parts of the Preamble are independently justiciable.
  1. Expand Fundamental Rights and Freedoms

My proposals here focus on socio-economic rights but there are other areas that also need improvement.

  • If the decision is made to continue to introduce specific rights in the Preamble, ensure that these are all enshrined (and so clearly judicially enforceable) in the substantive Part of the Constitution on fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • Add the protection of the right:
    • to education up to at least high school level and preferably tertiary level,
    • to health care,
    • to water,
    • to a healthy environment,
    • to basic welfare,
    • to gender equality,
    • to vote,
    • to unionize and to strike,
    • of the freedom of the press
  • Include the right of every citizen to be given the opportunity to learn any of Belize’s language(s), while providing for every Belizean to be taught to speak English and Spanish fluently.
  • Include the right of indigenous Maya Belizeans to communal lands.
  • Limit the quantity of private lands that can be owned by non-Belizeans and by single landowners and allow for land re-distribution.
  • Include that every person in Belize is entitled to all rights and freedoms whatever their:
    • Disability,
    • Sexual orientation,
    • Ethnic identification.
  1. Enshrine Civic Duties for Citizens in the Constitution

There is the on-going lament that civic responsibility and pride are weak in Belize. A new constitution can be used to help address this. My proposal is to add a new Part in the Constitution on the civic responsibilities of Belizeans. For example, these can include the duty of all Belizeans to:

  • Participate in Belize’s electoral and democratic processes.
  • Respect and obey national and local laws.
  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.
  • Pay public taxes and fees.
  • Serve on a jury when called upon.
  • Defend the Constitution and the country.
  • Protect the environment.
  1. More Protection for the Natural Environment in the Constitution

There is great national pride among Belizeans of our natural environment, acknowledgement of its value and importance to our sustainable development, and of the imperative to protect it. It is time to provide the environment greater constitutional protection. I support adding a new Part in the Constitution specifically on the environment that makes provisions for:

  • The recognition of the intrinsic value of Belize’s diverse natural environment.
  • The rights of the natural environment to protection and sustainable use.
  • The human right to a healthy and clean natural environment.
  • Ensuring that citizens and communities receive information and are consulted on policy decisions that impact their environment.
  • Prohibiting and/or regulating actions that seriously threaten the natural environment (such as certain kinds of land clearing, mining, offshore drilling, for example).
  1. Directly Elect Our National Leader as Head of State & Government

Replacing the British monarch with a Belizean Head of State is unfinished decolonization and it must be done ‘yesterday’.  But that, by itself, is not near enough and would result in no real change. Serious consideration should be given to the following:

  • Abolish the British monarch as Belize’s Head of State and abolish the post of Governor-General.
  • Directly elect a National Leader who is both Head of State and Head of Government. The title of the National Leader can be called ‘President’ but does not have to be. We can be creative about that.
  • Candidates for National Leader can come from registered political parties or run as independents.
  • At the same time, directly elect a Deputy Leader, who would assume power from the National Leader in certain circumstances.
  • The powers of the National Leader would include but not be limited to (a) heading the Executive (b) appointing a Cabinet of Ministers, (c) appointing other key positions (d) sending a national budget proposal to the legislature (e) sending proposed bills to parliament, and (f) signing legislation into law.
  • The Deputy National Leader would perform almost all of the ceremonial functions of a Head of State.
  • Direct elections would take place on a fixed date to prohibit snap elections and add predictability to the democratic process.
  • The National Leader and Deputy National Leader would serve for five years terms.
  • The National Leader would be limited to two terms in office (consecutive or non-consecutive).
  • The National Leader, Deputy National Leader and the Executive would be subject to on-going and structured oversight from the Legislature and other constitutionally enshrined oversight bodies.
  1. Have a Smaller Cabinet of Ministers from Outside the Legislature

This proposal primarily relates to the goal of better separating Executive and Legislative powers. While ensuring that legislative communication is maintained between the Executive and the Legislature, it also seeks to making power more decentralized and accountable. It would ensure that no minister or elected representative would be on both the executive and legislative payrolls simultaneously. It would also better ensure that elected representatives focus exclusively on their constitutional duties as representatives, legislators and policymakers. My proposal is to:

  • Have the National Leader select all ministers of Cabinet from outside the Legislature and chair the Cabinet.
  • Limit the size of Cabinet to no more than 12 ministers. This not only saves public funds, but also mitigates appointments as part of transactional politics.
  • The Deputy National Leader sits in Cabinet.
  • Develop clear criteria and required qualifications for appointments to Cabinet posts.
  • Remove most of the discretionary powers of ministers (for example, to grant exemptions from the paying of certain fees and duties) and have the relevant public service bodies perform these functions.
  1. Move to a Unicameral Legislature called the People’s Assembly

Belize is a small country with a small population and a well-designed and reformed unicameral Legislature with strong Standing Committees could effectively perform legislative functions. With this proposal, there would be no Senate or second chamber. Experience shows that the Senate has largely been a rubber stamp with mostly ‘gift’ appointments (a la the House of Lords). And electing the Senate would more than likely create more expansive and expensive partisan politics. The successful Senate experience of including social partners and enriching legislative debate should continue in the People’s Assembly. (See #8 below). My proposals here are to:

  • Have one chamber of the Legislature called the People’s Assembly with the principal role of developing and enacting laws and policies in the people’s interest after consulting the people.
  • The refusal of the National Leader to sign legislation passed by the People’s Assembly would be limited.
  • The People’s Assembly would be required to consider and debate all proposed legislation officially sent over by the National Leader.
  • Prohibit the passage of legislation in one sitting of the People’s Assembly except in state of emergency situations.
  • Empower Committees of the People’s Assembly to have a greater and more structured oversight role over the Executive – including calling ministers and senior public officers to provide information.
  • Ensure that the members the People’s Assembly and its Committees are constitutionally required and enabled to inform and consult the people and constituents on the annual budget, all new legislation, legislative amendments and on national policies.
  • Have all Statutory Instruments vetted and approved by a Committee of the People’s Assembly.
  • Establish non-partisan ‘People’s Committees’ at the constituency level with the key function of receiving information and sharing concerns with elected representatives.
  1. Elect the People’s Assembly largely by Proportional Representation

This proposal aims at reforming the electoral system to better reflect the diverse voices of the people, mitigate the ‘winner-takes-all’ problems of the first-past-the-post system, encourage participation of alterative parties and voices, and decrease visceral partisanship and political clientelism.

  • Elect 31 (+/- members depending on re-districting) to the People’s Assembly by an agreed form of proportional representation. (See Dr Harold Young’s Time Come piece for possible options).
  • Have three (3) members elected to the People’s Assembly by the official memberships of the three primary social partner networks: one each by unions, business associations and civil society organizations. These social partner members would have full voice and vote as any other member. This would add alternative voices, enrich debates and enhance accountability.
  • Require that 50% of all candidates put up by political parties for the People’s Assembly be women.
  • The Speaker of the People’s Assembly would be elected from outside the People’s Assembly by a simple majority of the People’s Assembly based on nominations from the People’s Assembly.
  • The People’s Assembly would select a Majority Leader who represents the majority of members and also a Minority Leader who represents the majority of members not supporting the Majority Leader.
  • Elections to the People’s Assembly will take place every five years on the same fixed date as the direct election of the National Leader and Deputy Leader.
  • Establish term limits of no more than three terms for the elected members of the People’s Assembly.
  • Elected representatives in the People’s Assembly would be provided with a salary, an official office and a budget to facilitate legislative analysis and consultations with constituents. They would have no direct access to any other public funds or services.
  1. Enshrine Referenda in the Constitution

Provide a normative and substantive constitutional framework for the holding of referenda as the most democratic way of people’s participation in decision making. This elevates referenda from just ordinary law to supreme law.

  • Require referenda for (a) resolutions of territorial and maritime border disputes, (b) amending key parts of the Constitution (see proposal #15 below) and (c) engaging in major activities that can endanger the natural environment.
  • Enshrine the right of the electorate to petition for a referendum when a threshold of 10% of the electorate have duly signed.
  • Include language to ensure that a referendum must be held when the people’s petition requirement is legally met.
  1. Provide for the Regulation of Political Parties, Campaign Finance and Political Clientelism in the Constitution

This proposal addresses the critical goal of regulating the corrupting influence of money in politics, handout politics and punishing those engaged in public corruption. The Constitution should outline the broad parameters that mandate and provide for legislation and regulations in relation to:

  • The registration and regulation of political parties.
  • The disclosure and regulation of financial donations to political parties and to politicians from any source.
  • The prohibition of related practices such as (a) elected officials providing special public sector favours in return for private donations made or promised, (b) the bribery of politicians, (c) the bribery of voters, and (d) the buying of key public posts.
  • The prohibition of elected representatives of or candidates for the People’s Assembly directly receiving public funds (other than what is stated in proposal #8) or being given powers to determine who can receive public funds or services. These functions are the responsibilities of the Public Service.
  • Stiff penalties and quick punishment for violations.
  1. Reform of Constitutionally Enshrined Oversight Bodies

This proposal aims to enhance the independence and effectiveness of constitutionally enshrined Offices and Oversight/Guardian Bodies (Election and Boundaries Commission, Belize Advisory Council, Public Services Commission, Security Services Commission, and the Judicial and Legal Services Commission).

  • Adopt the principle that the majority of the appointees should come from non-state organisations and/or be appointed due to their position in the Public Service. Appointees from political parties should be the minority.  This is especially relevant for the Election and Boundaries Commission.
  • Have a Committee of the People’s Assembly approve all appointments to oversight bodies.
  • Stagger the of tenure of the members of oversight bodies to ensure continuity and that not all posts are tied to electoral cycles.
  • Rethink the purpose and membership of the Belize Advisory Commission in the context of a reformed executive.
  • Enshrine the Integrity/Anti-Corruption Commission in the Constitution.
  • Enshrine the Office of the Ombudsman in the Constitution.
  • Enshrine the Office of the Contractor-General in the Constitution.
  1. Enshrine Local Government in the Constitution

Municipal, village council and alcalde levels of local government have expanded to play a critical role in Belizean democracy and development since independence. It is time to enshrine the local government system in the Constitution and so acknowledge and elevate its importance to our democratic governance.  My proposal is to add a new Part in the Constitution that:

  • States that there shall be a devolved local government system.
  • Provides for the three levels of local government: municipal, village and alcalde.
  • States, in general terms, that elections of local government officials will be take place on fixed dates and overseen by the Elections and Boundaries Commission.
  • Calls for accountability and transparency of elected local government councils.
  • Describes the process for devolving more powers to local government.
  • Establishes a Local Government Assembly made up of the mayors/alcaldes of all elected local government bodies (municipalities, villages and alcaldes).
  • The Local Government Assembly would advocate for the interests of local government, be consulted by the People’s Assembly on matters related to local government and would have a role to play in some constitutional amendments. (See proposal #15 below).
  1. Improvements to the Judiciary and Access to Justice

While the Part of the Constitution related to the Judiciary has been subject to several post-independence amendments, concerns about aspects of the Judiciary remain. These include, but are not limited to, access to justice for poorer Belizeans, the timeliness of dispensing justice for all, and the transparency of the process of appointing quality judges. Consideration should be given to constitutional reforms that:

  • Guarantee legal aid in certain circumstances.
  • Allow for the increase in prosecution, fines and punishment for white collar crimes.
  • Reform the appointment process for judges such that the selection process is more collective and results in more security of tenure and in more Belizean judges.
  • Address the issue of abuse of citizens’ rights and access to justice by the state’s security services.
  1. A More Effective and Accountable Public Service

The Public Service, as the engine of the Executive, continues to receive criticism, including from public officers themselves. The public complains of poor service, high levels of corruption and lackadaisical attitudes. The ministers complain of inefficiency, insufficient control, sabotage of programmes, and archaic regulations. Public officers contend that there is political victimisation and poor levels of compensation.  But in relation to the Constitution, the following reforms are proposed:

  • Ensure that the proposed reforms made to oversight bodies listed at #11 above include the Public Services Commission.
  • Include a provision to limit the Public Service to hiring a quantity of Open-Vote Workers (non-established staff) equal to no more than to 2% of the entire number of public officers.
  • Revert to the position of having the highest-ranking public officer (secretary to the minister) in each ministry being a permanent public officer.
  • Provide for the development of regulations for the Public Services Commission to mitigate nepotism.
  • Provide for the increase of scrutiny and penalties for public corruption by public officers.
  1. Increasing the Thresholds for Amending the Constitution

As the Supreme Law of the Belizean state, how our Constitution is to be amended is of upmost importance. I contend that any new constitution should be more difficult to amend than it is currently, while avoiding excessive rigidity. Consideration should be given to having a three-track approach to amendments based on the level of fundamental importance assigned to different parts and sections. For example, one approach could be:

  • Three-fourths of the People’s Assembly for minor technical amendments.
  • Three-fourths of the People’s Assembly plus two-thirds of the Local Government Assembly for all substantive sections of the Constitution expect those that require the third track below.
  • Three-fourths of the People’s Assembly plus a referendum for approving a new constitution and for certain sections. Included here could be the preamble, fundamental rights and freedoms, the system of government, amendments related to the separation of powers and judicial independence, and the electoral system.

Exhale

As I stated, these proposals for framing a new people’s constitution for Belize are not all original nor exhaustive and they may also be subject to my own re-thinking. There are blanks to fill and justifications to make. I hope they provoke some debate. For those who do take the time to review them, I naturally expect questions, critiques and rejections – hopefully based on informed analysis. But as with any proposal for constitutional reform, if any of these fifteen are to be seriously developed at all, this must be done with the people through innovative thinking, participatory debate and collective decision-making. Should we hold our collective breathes? Exhale!

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