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Emotions Ran High During Debate Over ICJ Referendum

Emotions Ran High During Debate Over ICJ Referendum
April 13
16:45 2019
Saturday, April 13th. - By Marion Ali -

The debate over the ICJ Referendum Bill, introduced by Prime Minister Dean Barrow was not without its fair share of emotions and candid exchanges and at the end of the day, each member except for two – one who abstained and the other who was absent – held their political party lines.  When the vote was taken at the end of it all, it was 18 UDP Ministers in favour of the Bill, with the exception of Orange Walk North Area Representative, Gaspar Vega who was absent for the day’s proceedings; and 11 PUP opposition members against, except Fort George Area Representative and two-time former Prime Minister, Right Hon. Said Musa who abstained.

The Bill is for the determination of “whether any legal claim of Guatemala against Belize relating to land and insular territories and to any maritime area pertaining to these territories should be submitted to the ICJ for final settlement and for the ICJ to determine finally the boundaries of the respective territories and areas of Belize and Guatemala.”

Upon its introduction, Opposition Leader, John Briceno objected to the notion that the Bill be run through all three stages in one sitting of the House.  Amidst several interruptions from members of the other side and the supporters for the government in the gallery, Briceno made his points.
“Unless if the Prime Minister plans to hold the Referendum within the next 20 days, there’s absolutely no urgency to pass this Bill today,” Briceno said, suggesting that the House Committees and other relevant parties be given the opportunity to have input.

Briceno said his party had concern over the introduction of a new Referendum Bill and that they were fully prepared to support the amendment to the previous Referendum Bill.

“We were coming here fully ready to support the holding of the Referendum if it was done under the previous referendum. If the referendum would have been called under the correct section – Section 2-1 (A) which is to come to the House to say that we have an issue of national importance and then we have the debate over the Referendum. We had already agreed on Wednesday, as a parliament, as a caucus, that we were going to support that section, Madam Speaker, if the Prime Minister would have come to correct what the Chief Justice told him to fix. We were going to support it. But lo and behold, the Prime Minister then comes less than 24 later the following day and gives us a new Bill. That changes the entire rules of the game. How can you expect us to come right here and say yes to something that we know is wrong, Madam Speaker?” Briceno argued.

But the ayes had it when the Speaker asked if the Bill should be tabled forthwith.

The PUP’s former two-time Prime Minister, Said Musa was in power in 1999 when the first Referendum law was passed.  A lot of the charting of the way forward towards solving our dispute with Guatemala occurred under his reign – from the negotiations in the early 2000’s to the Confidence-Building Measures that Guatemala rejected.  Musa was the only parliamentarian who stood apart from his party’s political line when he indicated that he would abstain from voting on the new Bill.  He explained that he took the stance in February along with three other former PUP Foreign Ministers to sign the Yes Declaration with Prime Minister Barrow because he felt it his duty to stand up for Belize.  Musa said he felt that now is the time to go the ICJ for a peaceful settlement over our territorial dispute with Guatemala and he said that the two political parties should be working together on this issue of national importance.

While he abstained from the vote, explaining that he would not defy his loyalty to his party, he did indicate that come Referendum day, he will vote yes.”I will vote “Yes” to the ICJ because I must remain true to myself and my conviction. I will vote “Yes” because as Prime Minister, I supported the Foreign Ministry in pursuing the path of a Judicial settlement in 2007 before the change of government in 2008.”

Foreign Minister, Wilfred Elrington praised Musa for his “statesmanship display in the House.  

“I’ve always held the view that he has a great many of the qualities of a statesman and I think that was demonstrated here to clearly.  It is not the first time that he has displayed this kind of statesmanship, Madam Speaker. On the occasion of the signing of the agreement by the Foreign Ministers I also thought that it was one of our glorious moments as well,” Elrington signalled.

The Bill will go to the Senate on Monday for a vote.  One of the PUP’s Senators, Valerie Woods has already publicly indicated that she supports a “Yes” to the ICJ Referendum, but it is not clear if she will also abstain as Musa did yesterday.  The Senate is made up of the UDP’s six, the PUP’s three and one for the unions, one from the business sector, one from the NGOs and one from the churches.

During the First part of the Sitting, a crowd of people numbering several hundred had gathered in front of the National Assembly Building, most of whom displayed placards and signs supporting the Referendum Bill and chanted “Yes to the ICJ!”

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