Constitutional Reform

Stabroek News
January 22, 1998

One of the measures negotiated by the three wise men from Caricom to settle the electoral dispute and agreed to by the PPP and the PNC was that a Constitution Reform Commission be established by law with a wide mandate and a broadbased membership. The terms of reference of the commission and its membership will be determined by the National Assembly after consultation with the political parties.

The Commission will be mandated to consult with civil society at large and to conclude its deliberations and present its report to the National Assembly within eighteen months of the l7th January, l998, that is by the l6th July, l999. The process for implementing the changes recommended by the Commission and approved by the National Assembly is required to be concluded in sufficient time to allow for post-reform general elections which will be held within eighteen months of the presentation of the report.

For this process to be significant it is essential to have a Chairman of the highest calibre who has a clear vision of the possibilities and scope of the task. In his introductory speech to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Bill l996 the Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, Cyril Ramaphosa, referred to it as the birth certificate of a nation. That Assembly had fulfilled its mandate and produced a new constitution for South Africa within the two year period set in the interim constitution.

To prepare themselves, the Chairman and other members of the Commission should at the outset familiarise themselves with what took place in South Africa and should have copies of both the interim l993 constitution which introduced provisions for power sharing (parties got a ministry if they got a certain number of seats) and the final constitution. They should also obtain the annual reports of l995 and l996 of the Constituent Assembly to see how the job was done. Though Guyana does not possess the qualified manpower to tackle the process at that level of sophistication it can still learn lessons.

The Assembly set up six Theme Committees to deal with various aspects of the constitution. Theme Committee l dealt with the character of the democratic state (including the preamble, the establishment of a single sovereign state, citizenship, democracy and equality, representative government, regular elections and voting system, freedom of information and accountable administration and the separation of powers), Theme Committee 2 dealt with the structure of government (including legislative procedures, amendments to the constitution, the executive) Theme Committee 3 dealt with the relationship between levels of government (the provincial system, local government), Theme Committee 4 dealt with fundamental rights (some of the South African provisions in this field have been much admired), Theme Committee 5 dealt with the judiciary and the legal system and Theme Committee 6 had sub-committees dealing with public administration, financial institutions and public enterprises, a public protector, a Human Rights Commission, a Commission for gender quality and land rights and the security services.

There was also an independent panel of constitutional experts whose job was to help with conflict resolution and to advise the Constitutional Assembly.

The terms of reference of our Commission will make clear exactly what its task will be. Are we aiming at a new constitution or changes in some areas? The existing l980 constitution is widely held to have been undemocratically imposed and to have many unacceptable features. Shouldn't it be replaced instead of being tinkered with? Have we got the human resources to do this properly and in time?

A lot will depend on the level of support from the two main parties. If they both really want reform and a constitution we can all be proud of and that addresses the problems of the nation this must be reflected in the quality of the commission they appoint and the scope of the terms of reference.