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Jul 16, 2004

Opposition scuttles C.C.J. amendment

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It was a legislative session that had all the elements we’ve come to expect in our young democracy, from the highest statesmanship to the lowest name-calling. But after all the voices were silent, the government side had to swallow hard and face for the first time what the Rolling Stones sang about long ago: that is, “You can?t always get what you want.” Patrick Jones reports from Belmopan.

Patrick Jones, Reporting

Tempers flared in the House of Representatives long before the contentious Caribbean Court of Justice Bill was introduced for its second reading. And after more than a few moments of comic relief, Minister of Foreign Affairs Godfrey Smith finally opened the long awaited C.C.J. debate. Armed with newspaper clippings and T.V. news transcripts, Smith spent over an hour making the case for the regional institution. At the same time, he attempted to discredit the Leader of the Opposition and his party for their hard line stance.

Godfrey Smith

?Indeed Madam Speaker, I can say that the eyes of the entire Caribbean Community are upon us; the eyes of the region are upon us. Our decision today is important not only for the success and vitality and vigour of the operation of the Court, but indeed for the future of the entire regional integration movement.?

Godfrey Smith

?Madam Speaker, this truly must be the lowest form of political extortion and parliamentary blackmail ever attempted, ever witnessed in the history of the National Assembly of Belize. They seek to justify their position, Madam Speaker, and they say different things again, if you listen to some of them they say, ?Why is the media characterizing our demands as political extortion?? Can?t they see, can?t the media see that the things we are asking for are not for the benefit of the U.D.P., but for the benefit of the entire country of Belize. Can?t they see what we are asking for is for attention to be paid to local constitutional reform? The simple answer to that Madam Speaker, and I don?t think this point has been lost on the public or in fact the media in Belize, the simple answer to that, and what exposes the shallowness and baselessness of the argument is that there is not actually a connection between the Caribbean Court of Justice and the demands they are seeking.?

Halfway through his presentation, Smith, claiming to still holding out hope that the U.D.P. would change its position, appealed to their sense of regionalism.

Godfrey Smith

?It?s not embarrassing us; it?s not embarrassing the Prime Minister. You are embarrassing yourselves. We were just at the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in Grand Anse last week, when the Prime Minister was asked where we are with the bill. And he was forced to point out the absurd extortionate demands, which was met of course with shock and consternation by the colleagues of the Prime Minister, some of whom are acquainted with your Leader of Opposition, and were surprised that he could be seen to be adopting such a position.?

But for Smith and the P.U.P. half a loaf would be better than none, and facing certain defeat on the CCJ amendments, they chose to move forward on a bill to give limited jurisdiction to the new court. Smith says this move should not be seen as an effort to create a parallel court of appeal for Belize.

Godfrey Smith

?I intend in the committee of the whole, Madam Speaker, and members of this honourable house, to make a number of amendments. And what are these amendments designed to do? It?s not intended to do anything underhanded or suspicious. If as it appears that the Opposition will not support us, in terms of the three quarters required to bring in the appellate jurisdiction of the C.C.J., all we need is two third majority to ensure that the Caribbean Court of Justice is accessible by Belizean individuals, by Belizean companies, by the state of Belize to deal with trade disputes. That is all we are going to attempt to do here today. It won?t be a parallel court, members of this honourable house. It will simply be a regional court that deals with trade disputes arising among members of the Caribbean Community.?

The first member of the Opposition to take the floor was Cayo South Representative, John Saldivar, who said that as a Belizean, he simply cannot support the government, when that body won?t yield to the U.D.P.?s demands.

John Saldivar, Cayo South

?We had an opportunity to really dialogue like mature people and work in the best interest of our country, but the People?s United Party government has decided to go the other route. They are asking us Madam Speaker, to treat this issue of the Caribbean Court of Justice on its own merits. And I am not ashamed and I will repeat it over and over if called upon to do so, I cannot in good conscience support anything coming from a government that is treating our people in the manner, that they are treating our people. We cannot separate the Caribbean Court of Justice from the suffering that our people are experiencing out there.?

Collet Representative Patrick Faber, like his colleague from Cayo South, said that in principle, the U.D.P. is not against the C.C.J., but believes that Belize must first put its domestic affairs in order before looking to the wider Caribbean.

Patrick Faber, Collet

?It cannot be an isolated event when the government comes to us to ask us for support. In fact when they come to us to ask for support, we must first make sure that our house here in Belize is in order before we can support something for outside, something that is of priority for outside. Because, Madam Speaker, like my colleague from Cayo South outlined, it cannot be that when people are hungry, when people are starving, when we are going through this massive problem with crime, when there is so much corruption, when there is the selling off our assets, when there are secret contracts signed and we don?t have any knowledge of it or and what are in those contracts, that they can be all satisfied and that the opposition can just close its eyes and side with them so easily.?

The debate on the C.C.J. bill continued until late in the evening, with presentations from the representatives of Mesopotamia, Corozal Southeast, Freetown and Queen?s Square. Patrick Jones, for News Five.

The bitterness of the debate, broken by some occasional humour, continued until five thirty-five this evening. The C.C.J. bill, allowing for limited original jurisdiction of the court, was passed by a margin of twenty-one to eight. The bill to amend the constitution was withdrawn when it became apparent that the Opposition would not support it, thus denying the required three-quarters majority of twenty-two votes. At one point Leader of the Opposition, Dean Barrow, went on record as saying that given the outcome of recent cross party discussions, he will never again meet face to face with Prime Minister Said Musa.

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