Implementing agreed constitutional reforms could help end current woes
August 21, 2002
Insufficient knowledge of and failure to implement recommendations which came out of the constitution reform process have been seen as central to the current socio-political problems in the country.
At a public forum sponsored by the Guyanese Citizens’ Initiative and the Guyana Human Rights Association at the Hotel Tower last Wednesday, former members of the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) Ralph Ramkarran, Haslyn Parris and Dr Rupert Roopnaraine shared their views on ‘Forms of Inclusive Governance: the Possibilities of Article 13’. Article 13 seeks to broaden the participation of citizens in the governance of the country and is the centrepiece of a new initiative by a group of persons and civil society organisations.
The forum attracted a large audience and many debates, which centred on the lack of awareness of constitutional amendments and who should ultimately be responsible for education and awareness.
Ramkarran, who represented the PPP/C on the CRC felt that the proposal for the establishment of five standing committees of parliament — natural resources, economic matters, foreign relations, social services and constitutional reform were all meant to give effect to Article 13 of the Constitution. So, too, he said, were the appointments of the Chancellor and Chief Justice, the strengthening of the Auditor General and his office, independent financial regulation for the judiciary and auditor general, and changes in the electoral system particularly with reference to local government.
The establishment of a number of commissions and standing committees has been provided for by amendments to the Constitution but these have not been set up.
And Ramkarran said the issues which they should have addressed remain unresolved.
The standing committees have not been set up because of an impasse between the PPP/C and the opposition parties.
Article 13, he noted, targets the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the state where their well-being was likely to be directly affected.
The three bodies charged with the upholding of the constitution in different ways are the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. It was intended, he said, that these bodies take cognisance of Article 13 in formulating policies, enacting legislation or making decisions.
The risks of ignoring this article, he said, were evident and where there were lapses, public reminders were an appropriate democratic mechanism to encourage compliance. The potential of Article 13, he felt, has not been grasped and “we are all at fault for allowing it to remain unacknowledged. Until now the great possibilities contained in Article 13 ...its potential is virtually unlimited and only public opinion could unlock that potential.”
While the constitution reform process was the only activity under the CARICOM-brokered Herdmanston Accord, which was conducted without political controversy — as distinct from intense debates and profound disagreements — he said that the significant achievements of the process were lost in the criticisms, particularly in certain sections of the press, at the failure of the commission to enshrine power sharing in the constitution.
In his view, enshrining power sharing was not necessary as “the Constitution is not, and was never an obstacle to power-sharing if that was the democratically expressed will of the electorate or their political representatives.” However, he added, “the building block for inclusionary democracy is yet to be put in place. The problems and difficulties now being articulated in our society are quite similar to those being articulated in 1997 and 1998.” He said that as a first step to resolving the issues, “we must implement what we agreed to.” After ten years in the immediate past being involved in some of the most contentious areas of politics, elections and constitutional reform, he said that “there is no problem that cannot be resolved by discussion.”
Parris, who was one of the representatives of the PNC on the CRC, underscored the importance of implementing the constitutional amendments.
He noted that only three of the 171 recommendations required a referendum. Those three, in today’s context, he said, would not affect the price of cheese. One of these is changing how the country is referred to. There had been a recommendation that the word `cooperative’ be dropped from `the Cooperative Republic of Guyana’ and he added “You would agree with me that if we pluck out `cooperative’ then our troubles would not be over.”
Another of these was with reference to `land to the tiller’ and the third was for the constitution to be written in simple language. The third issue, he said, might be the most difficult as the amended constitution could not be rewritten “in a book and just handed out.”
He noted that most persons had not read the 300-page constitution reform report and the Oversight Committee (two-volume) report. He added that it was difficult to talk about inclusion in an atmosphere in which only a privileged few knew what was to be implemented.
In relation to Article 13, he said, it did not talk about power sharing, but about participation in decision-making; not direct consultation. Yet, he said, the preamble to the Constitution spoke of consultation and no article in it stood alone. “No article in the Constitution stands on its own. It is a seamless document and should not be contradictory.”
Parris felt that the lack of implementation of the 171 recommendations was a Guyanese syndrome. He cited the anti-discrimination bill, which was unanimously passed in parliament but not assented to because of a hue and a cry over its statement that a person should not be discriminated against because of sexual orientation. The bill, he said, contained rights that the ethnic relations and human rights commissions would have to oversee. However, none of the 29 recommendations guaranteeing basic human rights could be guaranteed as the bill had not been assented to.
Roopnaraine, who represented the WPA on the CRC, said it was important to recognise that the CRC was crisis driven and brought about under the Herdmanston Accord.
In talks about power sharing, he said, there was an attempt at shifting the powers “or centre of gravity” away from the executive and towards the legislature. (Miranda La Rose)