‘Whereas the People of Belize Affirm…’: A Progressive Preamble

By Dylan Vernon, (REAL STORY#5, 1 November 2023)

Whereas the people of Belize — affirm that the Nation of Belize shall be founded upon principles which…[the people of Belize] desire that their society shall reflect and enjoy the above-mentioned principles, beliefs and needs and that their Constitution should therefore enshrine and make provisions for ensuring the achievement for the same in Belize. (Excerpt, Preamble, Constitution of Belize).

As this last paragraph (f) of the Preamble makes abundantly clear,  the Preamble is the corner stone of the wider national foundation that is the  Independence Constitution of Belize. Indeed, it has been argued that, in 1981, the Belize Preamble was the most progressive and unique innovation coming out of the short process of drafting the Constitution.

Preambles in constitutions across the globe come in different shapes, sizes and intent; but they are generally approached as immensely important national declarations that can include statements of historical origins, identity, language, overarching values, principles, national goals, rights and freedoms, responsibilities of state and citizens, and even policy roadmaps. Yet, there are diverse opinions, practices and judicial desicions among states on whether or to what extent preambles are obligatory and legally-binding — or just simply aspirational declarations. The Preamble of Belize is no different.  In this first of two posts on the Preamble of Belize, I first take a look at the real story of how the Preamble came to be.

It is useful to note for background that the 1963 Self-Government Constitution, which was a key basis for the 1981 Constitution, did not have a substantive Preamble – nor even a part on fundamental rights and freedoms. Of interest, the then British Colonial Office was quite open, as per existing policy in 1963, to include some rights and freedoms, but, curiously, neither these, nor a Preamble, were advocated by the People’s United Party (PUP) government in its constitutional proposals. The record shows that neither preambular declarations nor human rights were discussed at the 1963 Constitutional Conference in London. Understandably enough, the focus of the Price-led government then was almost exclusively on constitutional matters related to power-sharing, new governance institutions and national security.

The First Draft

The original draft of the current Preamble first appeared in February 1981 in the White Paper on the Proposed Terms for the Constitution for an Independent Belize. Its principal author was most likely V.H Courtenay, who some have called the ‘Father of the Constitution.’ By 1981, such declaratory preambles were no longer unique to constitutions of former colonies of the United Kingdom that had become independent members of the Commonwealth.

Also, not new were the legal debates on whether preambles should be only aspirational and on the extent of their judicial usefulness. Therefore, by 1981, there were a fair number of examples and experiences, including from the Caribbean, that the framers of Belize’s Constitution could review. They could also review the key original sources for both preambular and substantive provisions on human rights and freedoms in constitutions, including the British-influenced European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.

As shared in a pervious Real Story, V.H. Courtenay and C.L.B Rogers co-chaired the Joint Select Committee (JSC) set up by the National Assembly on 3 February 1981 to consult the people on the White Paper. It was Courtenay who confirmed during the public consultations on the White Paper that he and his team examined over 20 other constitutions before drafting it. Although one can find some similarities of language with the preambular declarations of the constitutions of St. Lucia, Jamaica and Guyana, there is likely no one exact source to pinpoint as the original ‘it’.

My considered view is that, in addition to using language from the constitutions of other countries, there was also a noteworthy degree of national creativity in the drafting of Belize’s Preamble. George Price and V.H. Courtenay certainly had decisive hands in this.  Indeed, at the time in 1981, it was one of the more progressive and expansive preambles around.

The People’s Input?

An analysis of the hurried public consultations and of all the written input on the White Paper in February and March of 1981 illustrates that the draft Preamble was one of the most popular parts of the constitutional proposals. It was the first time Belizeans were seeing some of their national values, rights and aspirations reflected in a straightforward manner in any official document, much less in what was to become their Independence Constitution. It clearly excited people – so it is unfortunate that the public consultations were so truncated.

Therefore, it is not surprizing that there were calls from Belizeans to strengthen the draft Preamble. Among proposals from people and civil society organisations were those for more social and economic rights, better defined property rights, for children’s rights, for freedom of access to the press and radio and for cultural rights related to various languages besides English. And for the few who wanted to see an end to parliamentary monarchy, there was, by extension, the expectation that the Preamble would contain the phrase ‘the Republic of Belize’.

As I covered in a previous Real Story, the Report of the JSC on the White Paper was very brief in content and shallow in explanation. No reasons were presented on why the JSC recommended those 23 amendments from all those made during the public consultations. However, these included three proposals for three new additions to the Preamble: that provisions be made in the Preamble for policies of state “(a) for the protection of the environment, (b) which give equal opportunity to children regardless of their social status, and (c) which ensure a just system to provide for education and health on the basis of equality.”  The original on page two of the four-page JSC Report as:

On 27 March 1981, in sittings of the House and the Senate taking place on the very same day, the government’s resolution to accept the JSC Report, was passed without amendment, including the three recommendations on the Preamble.

The Preamble Goes to London

In short order, it was on to the Belize Constitutional Conference in London from 6-14 April 1981 where the White Paper and amendments in the JSC Report became the base negotiating documents for the Belize team. Apart from seeking a few clarifications, the British side accepted Belize’s proposals on the Preamble, including the amendments. It was agreed that the British side, which would prepare the first full draft of the Independence Constitution after the London Conference, would also propose where and how best to integrate the new preambular amendments in a revised Preamble.

Likely because the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) had boycotted the London, Conference, the British side tried to initiate discussions on proposals made by Professor E. Laing in his comprehensive review of the White Paper, as commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce in February 1981. Laing had made detailed comments on the draft Preamble, including a call for more focus on social and economic principles and rights. The Belize delegation pushed back on discussing these further with the argument that the JCS in Belize had already considered the Chamber’s proposals drafted by Professor Laing. The British side did not pursue the matter further.

The Preamble Finalised

From the first draft of the Constitution prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK on 2 June 1981, to the version ‘ordered’ by Queen Elizabeth II on 31 July 1981 to be the Constitution of Belize, and to the history-making Independence Constitution passed by the National Assembly on 2 September 1981, all three of the ‘people’s’ amendments to the Preamble were included.

The ones on equal protection of children and on the provision of education and health were placed in paragraph (b) of the Preamble under “Whereas the people of Belize respect….” The one on the environment was inserted in paragraph (e): “Whereas the people of Belize require policies of state which…protect the environment…”In short, despite the limited public consultations in 1981, proposals from ‘some of the people’ of Belize did improve the Preamble of the Constitution of Belize in these three important areas.

Statements of National Identity and of Supreme Law

In relation to alternative approaches in the designing of constitutions, it is also important to recall that, while some constitutions have preambles that are inclusive of all preliminary declarations, the Constitution of Belize separates out several of the most fundamental ones and places them in Part 1 of the Constitution. These are the foundational declarations that Belize is a sovereign (independence) state, that it values democracy (‘democratic state’), that it identities as a “State of Central America in the Caribbean” (with its territory defined in Schedule I), and that the “Constitution is supreme law” and above any other law in Belize. Unlike a few preambles and preliminary declarations in other constitutions, those of Belize do not speak to several matters — including formative historical events, language, and the constitutional responsibilities of its citizens.

In a complementary TIME COME post to follow this one, I will discuss the original intent of the framers for the use of the Preamble and also share some preliminary considerations for the coming national debate on how it may be strengthened?

Note on sources: Apart from sources named or in the hyperlinks, this article drew on original sources in the Parliamentary Archives of the Belize National Assembly, in the holdings on Belize’s independence at the Belize National Archives, and in the UK National Archives, on newspapers and news magazines of the time and on Godfrey Smith’s 2008 paper titled ‘Constitutionalism in Belize: Lessons for the Commonwealth Caribbean’. First image from SPEAR, 1996.

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