Court of Appeal upholds injunction; No ICJ referendum until further notice

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

The national referendum on whether to settle the ongoing Guatemalan claim to Belize at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has been postponed until further notice, after the Court of Appeal, in a majority decision, upheld the injunction granted to the People’s United Party (PUP) on April 3rd to halt the referendum. On Monday, April 8th, the Government of Belize appealed this decision, requesting for a variation in the injunction, but the court dismissed the request, not allowing the scheduled referendum to take place on April 10, 2019.
The anticipated decision by the Court of Appeal on whether they would hear the government’s petition to hear its appeal was delivered near 5PM on Monday. The President of the Court of Appeal, Honourable Justice Manuel Sosa said that the court lacks the jurisdiction under section 12 of the Court of Appeal Act, and therefore the majority in the court did not consider it necessary to reach a conclusion refusing the government’s application.
The injunction to restrain the government from holding the referendum was granted by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, allowing the courts to consider the PUP’s constitutional challenge to the Special Agreement signed in 2008 between Belize and Guatemala. This agreement paved the way to the referendum to be held in both countries. Guatemala held theirs in April 2018, voting in favor of taking the territorial dispute to the ICJ. However, in Belize, the Opposition PUP, argues that Belize’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Honourable Wilfred Elrington violated the principle of the separation of powers when he signed such an agreement on behalf of the Belizean people, without the approval of the House of Representatives.
The legal team fighting for the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) in this legal case was led by Senior Counsel Lisa Shoman, while Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay represented the PUP. The government’s defense argued that the Court of Appeal could hear their application, notwithstanding the 21-day period which is required to lapse from the time of the issuance of the injunction. The government’s team further declared that the Court of Appeal Act is silent on the question of expeditious hearing, but Justice Sosa asked if the defence team could provide an authority to have the court hear the application. The UDP legal team said they did not.
Senior Counsel Courtenay argued in court that the applicants were in contempt of court and that they must purge themselves of the contempt. According to Courtenay, if they did not do so, they should not be heard. Courtenay’s statement was supported by an affidavit filed by one of his team members, Anthony Mahler, contending that the Chief Elections Officer, had instructed her staff to continue preparations for the scheduled April 10th referendum, despite Chief Justice Benjamin’s injunction. UDP’s Attorney General confirmed that he himself had ordered the Elections and Boundaries to continue with the process to hold the referendum in case it took place on the designated date.
Courtenay further added, that the UDP had violated section 17 of the Court of Appeal Act, which clearly says that no appeal can be heard before the 21-day notice. The UDP government was hoping to have the case appealed before this due time because according to them it was a matter of urgency. But Courtenay insisted that the order sought should be refused together with the notice of motion for an expedited hearing.This decision was lamented by Prime Minister Right Honourable Dean Barrow, who said that his administration would continue the legal fight to hold the referendum sooner than later.

At a press conference late on Monday, April 8th, he stated that the issue could be taken to the Caribbean Court of Justice, and the hope is to hold the referendum in less than a month. But in the coming days, the matter will be debated in the House of Representatives, and then at the Senate, the way it should had been done from the very beginning. “We are going to the House on Friday, April 12th and then the Senate will discuss the matter on Monday, April 15th,” said Barrow. He is confident that the ICJ referendum will be accepted in the House of Representatives, but he did not say the same about the Senate. Barrow called on the PUP for being determined to delay the referendum but declared that one way or another, he is convinced that it will happen soon. “We are positive with the Senate debate on Tuesday, April 16th, we will be able to have the Governor General sign his assent and then we will be able to provide for the holding of the referendum,” said Barrow.
The leader of the Opposition PUP, Honourable John Briceño responded to Barrow’s statements. Briceño emphasized that the recent judgments in the courts were victories for the Belizean people and not just the PUP. “We hold sacred the right of Belizeans to vote in a referendum to decide whether we to go the ICJ, but as I have said before, we have to get it right,” said Briceño. The Leader of the Opposition also pointed out that it is an issue of national importance and it should not be addressed as a political topic. The UDP, however, continues accusing the PUP of embarking on a malicious, unconditional campaign to block the democratic right of Belizeans. In a press release on Tuesday, April 9th, the ruling UDP referred to the recent courts’ judgments as a PUP campaign to take away the constitutional right of Belizeans and ensure that democracy is delayed.

In the meantime, the government is confident that by next week, a decision will be made and the new date for the referendum could be announced.
The San Pedro Sun will continue following this story.

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