OUR CHILDREN AND OUR CONSTITUTION
The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in collaboration with the Ministry of Education has recently concluded a debating competition among secondary school students on Guyana’s Constitution.
It was the first time that copies of the Guyana Constitution were distributed to secondary schools, as well as to Toshaos in our indigenous peoples’ communities. This is an an on-going exercise in constitutional education that was piloted by the OPM’s Governance Department with support from the Child Rights Commission and United Nations organisations such as UNDP and UNICEF, and The Carter Center.
The young debaters were drawn from 15 secondary schools from all three counties and from each of our 10 administrative regions. It was the first time ever that our schools were exposed to the Constitution as the base document, and as focal points for moots on diverse issues that were of immediate interest to them.
EXCHANGE OF IDEAS
I was able to re-live the excitement of the early 1970s. Then, I had led a powerful team from West Berbice into the Patrick Dargan Debating Competition on whether nationalisation of the “commanding heights of our economy” was a suitable policy for our newly independent state. I can still remember our uncompromising, fierce encounter with a team headed by the then young and articulate Robert Corbin, at the Maha Sabha Secondary School in Georgetown.
It didn’t matter who won the debate, as it was an exchange of ideas on the choice of path for the development of our nation, and as young people, we felt strongly that we had a point of view that we wanted to share.
At that time, based on the historic, colonial structure and expatriate control of our economy, the dominant thinking had favoured radical nationalism, with nationalisation of the bauxite and sugar industries being high on the cards. That was expected, since both of the entrenched political parties, especially their leaders Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, had opted for socialist orientation as the political-ideological goal of our country. It was later written into the present 1980 republican Constitution.
That charged atmosphere was evident in the recording studio for the final between the Diamond Secondary School and the McKenzie High School, where the moot elicited responses to whether humanitarian intervention undermines national sovereignty.
Our Constitution came into play as it provides that sovereignty belongs to the people, and that Guyana is a sovereign, indivisible state. Students argued that no organisation or foreign state, under the cover of “humanitarian intervention,” should use “aid” to undermine a national government. On the other hand, there was a counter argument that once done under mutual agreements, humanitarian assistance, such as those for refugees from states in distress, should be welcomed. Both sides agreed that the genocide in Rwanda that claimed the lives of some one million people, could have been avoided had there been timely humanitarian intervention.
Under our Constitution, our children are guaranteed many rights, i.e., the right to life, to an education and to work. During the debate, they used these guarantees as a guide for other civilised countries of the world. They also recognised that we must have a changing constitution, that reflects new realities in the world, and that would strengthen safeguards for human rights.
As I noted at the debate final, the Constitution is a living document. It is not immutable, but it should reflect changes in the society and in the wider world; it must be subjected to periodic, critical reviews and opened to the citizens for constructive recommendations as to how changes should be introduced.
Constitutional reform cannot be an academic exercise or a bureaucratic escapade. The process must start with consultation and consensus, upon which I had embarked.
Recently, Mr Ralph Ramkarran, the former Chairman of the Reform Commission and now leader of a new political party, tried to pick a row with me as if I had failed to effect constitutional reform. I did what in law should be done, that is, to table in the National Assembly a Bill to set up a Constitutional and Consultative Constitutional Reform Commission. After its first reading, it was by consent of the parliamentary political parties, sent to the House’s bi-partisan committee that was established under the Constitution to look at matters such as this.
The committee did not, for some three years, conclude its examination of the Bill. The facts will show that the APNU+AFC Government had taken an initiative; there is no evidence, however, that the opposition wanted to review or reform the Constitution — at least not now.
In a society where any major reform has to receive the support of two-thirds of all the elected members of the National Assembly, it would be futile to get any such changes until the government and the opposition fully buy in to the process. This has to await the 2020 elections, after which constitutional reform would be placed on the front burner.
For me, constitutional reform is not a political slogan. It is not a protest note on a placard. We have seen how a no-confidence motion to remove a democratically elected government on December 21, 2018 had spawned protracted legal contentions regarding the threshold for a simple, as distinct from an absolute majority, and the role of dual citizens in our national parliamentary system. Had the reform process got underway, as I was hoping, certain ambiguities would have been cleared up. The society could have been saved the unnecessary burden of literally marking time, now for just under one year.
By taking the Constitution to our children, we hope to promote a new awareness in our society that all of our citizens should obey our laws, as our National Pledge commands us to do. At the same time we should work towards strengthening these laws, and not blame our Constitution for the political fissures and ethnic polarisation in our society.
As this awareness grows, I am confident that the major players would amend constitutional provisions to provide for broader inclusion in our governance system, to strengthen our democracy and fortify national sovereignty.
On Friday last, children in Europe and Australia took part in mass demonstrations to highlight that climate change is real, and to ask their governments to do everything possible to save our planet. There is no Plan B for our world, they appealed.
There is also no Plan B for Guyana. A manifesto for a one-party government is a recipe for doom. The wave of the future is the broadest, multi-ethnic, multi-party government of national unity for which constitutional reform is necessary.