An apolitical army

Stabroek News
July 2, 1999

The submission made by the Guyana Defence Force to the Constitutional Reform Commission is of considerable interest.

The army requests, first, that its role be clearly defined in the constitution as a tripartite role, to maintain the territorial integrity of Guyana, to assist the civil power in the maintenance of law and order and to promote national development through the provision of technical expertise and resources to assist the civilian authorities in the maintenance of essential services in times of emergency. As has been noted before the role of the army in helping to maintain law and order requires some discussion. The modus operandi of an army is quite different from that of a police force, armies are not geared to arresting and detaining people, they usually shoot to kill. Indeed, later in the same document, when dealing with the deployment of troops in Guyana the army request that there be an unequivocal statement in the constitution outlining the basis for deployment of the force in support of the civil authority in the maintenance of law and order. "It shall provide how such deployment is to be initiated (whether by the Minister responsible for Defence, with the approval of the National Assembly or otherwise). This is necessary to protect the civilian population and instill a measure of confidence and security within the wider society".

The army should clearly not be lightly called upon to intervene. We believe, however, that there would be widespread agreement that the army should be available in an emergency both to maintain the essential services and to preserve law and order.

The army also propose that the command should be vested in an officer chosen from amongst officers on active service who at the time of appointment shall have had a minimum of ten years continuous commissioned service. He would be appointed by the President. This seems fair and reasonable.

The next submission is that the army shall be apolitical, "that is to say it shall not be deployed for partisan political purposes". An overt statement of this kind in the constitution would be most welcome, one recalls the unsavoury role played by the army in previous rigged elections. It would be useful both for the army (they could rely on it if politicians sought to subvert them) and for civil society. The suggestion that their votes at elections should be confidential will also be widely supported.

The army submits that the Defence Board, created by the Defence Act, should be enshrined in the constitution and charged with the responsibility of dealing with military matters. The Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Defence should be empowered, they suggest, to provide the necessary civilian oversight of the security forces. "The Defence Board shall liaise with this body from time to time, but the Officer vested with the command of the Force shall have direct access to this body on issues affecting the operational efficiency of the Force. The Chairman of this sub-committee shall be the Member of Parliament who has the responsibility for defence".

Finally, it recommends that the provision in the Defence Act dealing with the use of troops abroad (a resolution of Parliament is required) should be placed in the constitution and the participation of GDF troops in regional or multinational exercises in or out of Guyana should also require prior parliamentary approval.

The army is smaller and tighter than it used to be. It has certainly played a proper constitutional role since l992 and there will be widespread support for formally recognising its status and role in the constitution. It is understood that in the recent discussions on an emergency its presentation to the government on what was involved was entirely professional and was done after full consultation with the senior officers. Guyana wants a professional army entirely outside politics and it is heartening that it should itself seek this recognition. The Commission will no doubt give these representations the respect they deserve.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples