The Military & the Constitution: Our Soldiers on Streets of Belize and Haiti??

By Dylan Vernon, TIME COME #8, 9 July 2024.

Belizean armed forces in south-side Belize during a state of emergency

Three recent developments sparked my interest in this topic: the Cabinet decision in late 2023 that Belize could send armed forces to Haiti, the extension of the current state of emergency in parts of Belize (that brings suspects face-to-face with armed soldiers), and the introduction last month of the National Security Council Bill. The latter defines ‘armed forces’ as the Belize Defence Force, the Belize Coast Guard and “any other authority of Belize that has functions relating to the military defence of the country on land, air, sea, or in the cyber domain.” These developments all beg a critical question: Does our current Constitution deal adequately with matters related to the role and use of our armed forces? I argue that it needs to do better.

Not Much in the Constitution 

In his 2008 book A Caribbean Identity: Memoirs of the Colonial Service, A.S. Frankson tells of how one day in 1969, when he was permanent secretary of Home Affairs, Minister C.L.B Rogers directed him to prepare a Cabinet paper (his last) on the establishment of the Belize Defence Force. Due largely to delayed independence it was not until 1978 that the Belize Volunteer Guard transitioned into the Belize Defence Force (BDF) – with the mandate to defend Belize and to support the maintenance of order within its borders (Defence Act). 1978 was also a year of heightened sabre rattling from Guatemala. The Belize Coast Guard (BCG) was formed as a separate force in 2005 from what was then the maritime wing of the BDF.

During the national consultations on the 1981 Constitution there was negligible attention to matters of defence and arm forces. When asked about such security matters by citizens during the consultations, members of the Joint Select Committee on the White Paper informed that they were going to be dealt with separately outside of the constitution making process. Indeed, they were part of the separate talks on the Guatemalan claim and on Belize’s independence. However, during the constitutional conference in London in April 1981 the Belize constitution delegation met secretly with officials of the Defence Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and of the Ministry of Defence (UK) on 14 April 1981 to discuss defence and BDF matters. Still hoping for a settlement with Guatemala, the British pushed for security arrangements limited to supporting BDF expansion and peace agreements with regional countries. As we now know, a time-limited defence guarantee was eventually secured from the reluctant British on the road to 21 September 1981.

A review of the Report of the Political Reform Commission (2000) shows that the Commission hardly discussed matters of defence and armed forces at all. The one exception was a rather heated debate of a proposal for a constitutional provision for mandatory service in the BDF for all citizens of Belize between a certain age. The majority of the Commission did not so recommend. Commissioner Carolyn Sandiford, now the President of the Senate, penned a forceful dissent in support of the proposal (Recommendation 29).

Given the above, and the fact that there have been no threats to civilian rule from our armed forces in Belize’s post-independence history, it is not surprising that issues related to the military get little ink in the 1981 Constitution and amendments to it since. However, the current Constitution does:

  • Allow for periods of public emergencies when Belize is engaged in war, is so proclaimed by the Governor General or is so declared by two-thirds of the House of Representatives (Section 18). The authority, thereby, given to governments during public emergencies can result in statutory instruments allowing the BDF and BCG to assist the Police Force and for their members to have the powers of police officers.
  • Disqualify members of the armed forces from serving in the House of Representatives or Senate – thereby separating legislators (as representatives of civilians) from active military personnel (Section 58).
  • Give the Senate the sole power of “approving the establishment of any military base for any foreign military force” (Section 61). However, no guidelines are given on which to base such a decision.  This needs to be done.
  • Appointment of the commandants of the BDF and BCG by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition (Section 107).
  • Establish a Security Services Commission (SSC) but with powers limited to matters of appointments, removals and grievances related to members of the security forces, including the BDF and BCG. The SSC does not play a policy or advisory role in national security matters (Section 110C).

These are notable not so much for what they include but for what they do not. Before I get into the more substantive issues below, let me get off one chafing harness. The Commander-in-Chief of the BDF is no other than Belize’s Head of State, King Charles III, represented by the Governor General, Dame Froyla Tzalam.  Such risible absurdities will haunt us until Belize becomes a republic.

Deployment of Troops Outside of Belize?

Part of the 20,000 US Troops in Haiti in 1994 during the failed invasion. A UN-led intervention also failed ten years later.

In October last year the government made the surprising announcement that Belize had contingently committed 50 security personnel to a Kenyan-led international military contingent to Haiti as part of a Multi-lateral Security Support Mechanism (MSSM). The whole matter of yet another military intervention in Haiti has been rocked by controversy – including some nationally. Some 50 BDF and BCG personnel went to Jamaica for Canadian-led training in May this year and have returned. An advance force of Kenyan special forces has already arrived in Haiti. While Belize is taking cover behind the UN Security Council’s sanctioning of the intervention, the UN itself is not involved on the ground. The government says that it has not made a final decision as yet – pending outstanding questions about overall command, costs and security.

As an aside, I hope the decision is no – as do the vast majority of Haitian civil society groups that have been pushing for home ground solutions. Belize and other CARICOM states should never have gone down this tried and failed dead end road in the first place. And note that, while the ‘west’ has pushed for this intervention, no western power is committing troops. If the central concern is, indeed, humanitarian, there are other options to further explore – including promoting proposals for democratic change emanating from the rooted work of organised Haitians.

Belizean armed forces of BDF and BCG forces leaving for Jamaica for pre-Haiti training on Canadian jet in May 2024

Whether one supports the Haiti intervention or not, the whole episode raises the thorny issue of how we make national decisions to deploy armed forces to other countries. The Constitution is totally silent on this and there are no standard procedures for such decision making. In effect, it leaves it to the prime minister and the cabinet to decide how to decide. And the choices are two: cabinet decision only, or cabinet decision followed by a resolution of the National Assembly. In actuality this is but one decision since members of Cabinet and ministers of state make up the majority in the House.

If the Senate survives the constitutional review in its current configuration, it makes sense, at the very least, for the Senate to have the power to approve the deployment of any of Belize’s armed forces to another country – just as it now has the power to approve the establishment of military bases of foreign troops. Even better, a revised national assembly could be given the power of such approval with at least a two-thirds vote, preferably after some meaningful public debate. Exceptions could be considered for sending armed forces for humanitarian security missions in the aftermath of natural disasters in other states – especially where these are contained in existing bi-lateral and regional agreements.

The key argument here, as the Haiti example has highlighted, is that the sending of Belizean armed forces to other states are major, and often sensitive, national decisions with major potential political, economic and human consequences – including lives and limbs of Belizeans. It requires more than just an Executive decision.

Our Armed Forces & Public Emergencies

Over the past two decades we have seen the increased use of periods of public emergency outside of natural or health disasters. More recently, these are invariably directed at quelling gang-related criminal activity in particular high risk geographical areas. In a very real sense, this more and more frequent duro mano resort to longer and longer periods of public emergency by governments of both major parties is a very public admission of their collective failure over time to effectively address the worsening situation of criminal activity since independence. This failure of leadership and of policy is systemic. Such periods of public emergencies are but fleeting chest-beating moments in the longer-term trajectory of ever greater citizen insecurity.

That said, I am not the first to point to the dangers of having armed soldiers, trained to fight wars, assisting with police work – as allowed during periods of public emergency. While the Constitution sets the stage for all this (Section 18), it is explicitly spelt out in statutory instruments for each emergency. Notwithstanding that the Police Force, now with its own armed elements, has its own internal problems related to the abuse of citizens’ rights, the potential for such expands when armed forces are added to the mix.

I am no security expert, but I suggest two areas for consideration for constitutional change here. First is that of increasing the threshold for the declaration of periods of public emergency outside of periods of war, pandemics and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Declarations of periods of public emergency related to perceived threats to national security from domestic gang activity seems to be in a different arena. Such declarations all seem too easy a resort and too open to abuse, extensions, and violation of human rights – especially those of black urban youth currently. In the current governance system, for example, one could argue for the threshold for declarations (and their extensions) related to domestic gang activity to require a three-fourths majority in the House and the concurrence of the Senate. Perhaps we can add to this level of threshold declarations related to major civil unrest, terrorist threats and organized drug trafficking.

The second area for constitutional consideration relates to placing greater limits on how the armed forces can be used during different types of periods of public emergencies. Currently, only regulations in a statutory instrument speak to the use of armed forces during a period of public emergency. However, given the high-risk potential, shouldn’t the Constitution itself provide clearer direction for the role and use of the armed forces during emergencies? For example, a provision can be included that limits the armed forces from engaging in police support activities that deal directly with domestic gangs. In short, the use of the armed forces to assist the police should not be as open ended as it currently is.

On the National Security Council

On the surface, the National Security Council Bill tabled in the last sitting of the House seems a necessary and straightforward institutionalisation of long-existing structure by legally establishing the National Security Council (NSC) and the National Security Directorate. However, I do question whether this legal cart came before the constitutional horse. So important are the functions of the NSC to Belize’s national security, there is a strong argument that the NSC needs to be constitutionally enshrined, and if so, this should have come before the Bill.

That said, the Bill proper can be improved. The functions of the NSC seem too broadly stated as to deal with “any matter affecting the internal and external security of Belize.” Internal and external security are related but different areas of national security and some statement of distinction would be useful.  Also useful would be a further breakdown of the functions of the NCS, for example, those sub-functions related to policy decisions on having foreign military bases in Belize and to the deployment of Belizean armed forces to other countries. Likewise, the limitations of the functions of the NSC and the Directorate are too generally stated or non-existent.

Additionally, the fourteen members of the NSC (including the commandants of the BDF and BGC) are all ex officio – either ministers or senior government officials representing, or appointed by, the government in power. Some inclusion of non-state members for a semblance of diversity seems feasible without compromising the high premium placed on secrecy. Although important in such security councils, confidentiality should not preclude some kind of external oversight. The Bill could be improved, in this regard, by requiring legislative oversight by the relevant parliamentary standing committee. However, I repeat my contention that the Bill should be normatively grounded in the Constitution.

Finally, while not explicitly stated, the Constitution assumes a principle that I believe most Belizeans value highly: that our armed forces should always be under civilian control and oversight. Perhaps it is now also time to state this clearly in the preamble of a revised or new People’s Constitution of Belize. And it is certainly the time to strengthen those provisions that protect all Belizeans from violations of their basic human rights by the security forces of the state, especially during a state of emergency.

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