‘Constitutional reform’ talks to be taken to Indigenous villages

─ Toshaos welcome move to facilitate important initiative

DPI, Guyana, Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), with permission from the Indigenous Village Councils will take its Constructional Reform education programme to the hinterland communities. The education programme is a collaboration between OPM, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Guyana.

This was disclosed by OPM’s Coordinator of the Department of Governance, Tamara Khan during a presentation at the 13th National Toshaos Council (NTC) conference at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC) on October 9.

The Constitution Reform process was placed under the ambit of the OPM when the government took office in 2015; a steering committee was established to advise the Cabinet on the scope, range and the extent of changes to the constitution. Thereafter, a bill was drafted and placed in Parliament in a bipartisan committee comprising government and opposition members.

His Excellency, President David Granger had said that the constitutional reform should not be led by experts and politicians, but instead, by the citizens of Guyana. It is against this background, Khan noted, that the OPM consulted with the United Nations, the Carter Centre and the University of Guyana (UG) to ascertain what citizens know and what they need to know about the Constitution. It was reported that the constitutional reform cannot be effective if the citizens do not know what is in the document, and therefore, there needs to be a process of public education.

“So, this is the beginning of that consultation in the Indigenous villages. We intend to come to your regions. Invite us and we will come into your communities,” Khan told the Indigenous leaders.

She pointed out that to ensure the necessary information reaches all Guyanese, there is a public education programme at the OPM, a national secondary school debate is currently ongoing, and there will also be a television series, radio programme, among other public awareness initiatives.

The bill, put forward to the National Assembly by Prime Minister, Hon. Moses Nagamootoo in 2017, caters for the establishment of a Constitution Reform Commission which is tasked with consulting approximately 100 communities on the coast and the hinterland with a view that “no one is left behind.”

“The committee will ask you what changes you would like to see in this document, what affects you in your community, what kind of health care you like for your women, your children, fathers, mothers… The most exciting new industry is the oil and gas industry, we can talk about what we want to happen with the royalties from that industry, what benefits from those resources, do you want to see for your communities specifically from the oil revenue. What do you want to see in terms of caring for the environment? Start thinking about those changes,” Khan told the Toshaos.

They were also educated on some of their rights enshrined in the constitution – for example, the right to life, personal liberty, protection from slavery and forced labour, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, among others. In particular, they looked at Article 149 which speaks to the protection of the Indigenous Peoples, their language, culture and way of life.

At the end of the presentation, they were all presented with a copy Guyana’s Constitution. The Indigenous leaders commended the Office of the Prime Minister for implementing such an important initiative that will allow them to be more aware of their rights. They, however, shared their concern that some parts of the document are not easily interpreted and need to be simplified.

In her response, Khan explained that the OPM recognised the need for the document to be simplified and underscored that this is why reform is urgently needed. She noted that the history of the constitution dates back to the 1920s and that the 1966 constitution is the first charter of an Independent Guyana; since then there have been several changes. Khan emphasised that laws have to be dynamic and have to change with society to adequately represent the people and meet their needs.

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