Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Oceana Belize Files Suit Challenging the Disqualification of Referendum Petition Signatures


Oceana in Belize seeks Judicial Review of the Government of Belize’s (GOB) decision to disqualify signatures submitted to the Elections and Boundaries Department petitioning the GOB to hold a national referendum on Offshore Oil Drilling

In December of 2011, the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, spearheaded by member Oceana Belize, collected and submitted 20,160 signatures petitioning the Government of Belize to hold a referendum on the topic of allowing Offshore Oil Drilling in Belize. The petition was done in accordance with the Referendum Act and was a requirement for the Coalition to have the referendum held on request. It needed to have 10% of the registered voters of Belize signed unto the petition in order for it to be passed which would amount to 17,140 signatures of the total 171,405 registered voters. The number of signatures submitted clearly exceeded the required quantity needed as it totalled over 11% of the overall number required to have the referendum held, however, after waiting two months to get a response from the Elections and Boundaries Department they were told at a press conference on February 1, 2012, that over 8,000 signatures were rejected on the petition and therefore the required amount was not met.

The Elections and Boundaries Department rejected a total of 8,047 signatures; 40% of the total number submitted by The Belize Coalition. The rejection of those 8,000+ signatures meant that the total accepted number of signatures was less than the amount needed to have the referendum passed and therefore the petition failed and was rejected by the Commission. The Coalition was shocked and concerned to hear of the large number of rejected signatures and in a letter to the Governor General on February 2nd Matura-Shepherd wrote that “We are extremely concerned about the legitimacy of that number, as well as the lack of an explanation as to why they were rejected”. In that same letter she goes on to state that “In this context, we humbly request that through the authority of your office, a formal and expeditious enquiry may be made to the Elections and Boundaries Department as to what the particular circumstances were which caused the aforementioned rejections.”

Shortly thereafter, on the advice of the Governor General, Matura-Shepherd submitted a letter to Mr. Charles Gibson, then CEO in the Ministry of Public Service, Governance Improvement, Elections & Boundaries and Sports, requesting a list of the rejected names and the reasons for the rejections as promised in the press conference on February 1st.  When asked at that conference if the names and reasons would be presented to the Coalition for scrutiny both Gibson and Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai committed to release the names stating ,”those will definitely be released“. On February 16th, Gibson replied in a letter to Matura-Shepherd acknowledging receipt of the February 7th letter, and stated that “Legal advice is being sought with respect to the contents of your letter”. Matura-Shepherd, waited until March 15th, after not receiving a response to send another letter urging a reply from Mr. Gibson, which again went unanswered.

Subsequently on May 2nd, two months and twenty-five days after the initial letter was sent requesting the release of the rejected names, Matura-Shepherd sent a final letter to Gibson indicating that she had still not received any response with regard to any of the two previous letters and stated that “Even while you seek legal advice on the matter, it seems to us there is no valid reason not to address our three very straightforward questions”. She went on to end the letter by informing Gibson that “Surely you and your Government do not want to be seen as attempting to frustrate our democratic right under our governance system, nor to be denying us our right to information in a process which we initiated as have all right to pursue”. This letter again went without a response from either Gibson, or Tamai.

In reaction to Gibson’s and the Elections and Boundaries Department inability to adhere to the commitments they made to release the names of the disqualified signatures and the lack of response to any of the letters sent, on May 4th , Oceana in Belize filed suit against the Government of Belize ‘challenging its disqualification of 8,047 signatures of Belizean voters who had signed a petition calling on the Government of Belize to hold a national referendum which would permit all Belizeans on voting whether to allow or disallow offshore exploration and drilling in Belize’.

Oceana’s VP Audrey Matura-Shepherd explains that, “since all other means has failed, we have no other option but to turn to the courts to have this matter heard and challenge the decision of the Chief Elections’ officer as unreasonable.

At the time this article was published the Government of Belize has not responded to the suit filed.

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