Constitution reform group completes work

By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
August 2, 2000

The Oversight Committee (OSC) on Monday completed converting the 171 recommendations for the reform of the constitution into draft amendments for the consideration of the National Assembly.

The recommendations were made by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) chaired by Ralph Ramkarran SC and on which the political parties and civil society organisations were represented.

Its members say that the work done in converting the recommendations into amendments is the first step towards devising an inclusionary constitution.

The members were also high in their praise of the level of cooperation that had developed among the representatives of the four parliamentary parties. They said that it was a period in which the parties matured.

The OSC report is expected to be tabled in the National Assembly shortly by Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Reepu Daman Persaud. The Assembly, the OSC has been informed, will work through its annual recess to consider the amendments to enable the upcoming general elections to be held under a revised constitution. The National Assembly would normally go into recess every year for two months from August 8.

The draft amendments are being submitted for the consideration of the National Assembly weeks behind schedule as the time-bound plan it had approved had required them to have been submitted in a thirty-five-day period between June 9 - July 28.

However, the OSC subsequently agreed that apart from those amendments which it had agreed to fast-track, the other amendments would be submitted together. The OSC's report would contain a recommendation from its legal experts as to how the National Assembly should proceed in its consideration of the amendments.

In its push to complete its work the OSC had three meetings between Saturday and Monday.

At the meeting on Saturday the Committee completed its consideration of the amendments which provide for the establishment of the Human Rights Commission, the Indigenous Peoples Commission, the Commission on the Rights of the Child and the Commission on Women and Gender Equity.

Other amendments the Committee approved were those which would provide for the electoral system under which the upcoming general elections are to be held.

Under the amendments, Parliament may make provisions for the division of Guyana into geographic constituencies, and for not more than half of the elected members of parliament to be elected from these.

The parties have agreed that the country would be divided into ten geographic constituencies based on the ten administrative regions and these constituencies would together elect 25 of the 65 members of parliament.

The OSC has left up to parliament the decision as to the manner in which the lists of candidates should be prepared and presented so as to allow voters to be sure which individuals they are electing to the National Assembly.

The parties have agreed that it was not mandatory for the lists to be prepared in order of rank and that the number of candidates on the list for each constituency would be two more than the number of seats allocated to each constituency.

The parties agreed that women would be required to comprise not less than one in every three candidates on a party's list for the geographic constituencies and its national list.

This agreement had drawn criticisms from a number of women groups who felt that the agreement was inconsistent with the recommendation of the Constitution Reform Commission which called for representation of women in the decision-making process and in the National Assembly and that such representation should take account of their numbers in the population.

The amendments also provide for limiting the number of non-elected ministers and parliamentary secretaries to three.

The amendments to Article 156 would provide for members of parliament to be disqualified from sitting in the National Assembly if they declare that they would no longer support the party list from which their names were extracted or declared their support for another list.

The CRC had recommended that "crossing the floor" should not be permitted if the lists were constructed in a way that would allow voters to be sure which individuals they were electing.

Chairman of the OSC Moses Nagamootoo praised the work which was done by Haslyn Parris, the Committee's coordinator and a representative of the People's National Congress (PNC) as well as the staff of the Committee's secretariat.

The United Force representative, Manzoor Nadir, declared that his party would wholeheartedly support the draft amendments recommended by the OSC even though TUF had not agreed with some of the CRC recommendations. He said that this decision had been influenced by the checks and balances which had been built into the amendments including those related to reinforcing the independence of the judiciary.

Nadir said too that the party's position had mellowed considerably as he witnessed the zeal with which the OSC members searched for "unanimous consensus", describing the process as "an exercise in maturity for the parties".

Nadir too praised Parris' work. Vincent Alexander, the other PNC representative, said that he was satisfied with what had been achieved by the Committee even though it was not what he had ideally hoped for. Alexander said it represented "sufficient strides in that direction." He too thanked the other members of the committee for the environment they had created for the work to progress.

Alexander also urged those OSC members who sat in the National Assembly to protect the advances made in constitution reform from being eroded.

Alliance for Guyana representative, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine said that he was uplifted by the spirit of civility and the intellectual challenges of the debate as the OSC went about its work.

He observed that while the completed work of the OSC was less than what he had aspired to, what had been done was not to be sniffed at as the advances were in the right direction.

He observed too that the OSC work had once again demonstrated that the political parties were extremely capable of sitting together and solving the most difficult of problems.

Dr Roopnaraine however cautioned about the amount of work that was ahead of the National Assembly and voiced his concern that the OSC had not been more forthright in its recommendation as to how that work should be managed.

Dr Leslie Ramsammy, one of the two other PPP/Civic representatives called the amendments which would establish the Human Rights Commission and the other constitutional bodies "no small achievement".

He noted too that the amendments which had been proposed would "help us to confront the problems which had impeded the country's progress in the past."

Dr Roger Luncheon, another PPP/Civic member, said that he never had doubts that the OSC would have concluded its work given the calibre of its members.

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