By Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo
The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in collaboration with the Ministry of Education recently hosted a debating competition among secondary school students on the subject of the Guyana Constitution.
It was the first time that copies of the Constitution were distributed to secondary schools, as well as to Toshaos in our Indigenous peoples’ communities. This is an ongoing exercise in constitutional education that was piloted by OPM’s Governance Department, with support from the Rights of the Child Commission, United Nations organisations such as the UNDP and UNICEF, and The Carter Center.
The young debaters were drawn from 15 secondary schools in each of our 10 administrative regions.
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 fierce encounter with the team headed by young and articulate Robert Corbin at the Maha Sabha Secondary School in Georgetown.
It didn’t matter who won the debate. It was an exchange of ideas, an examination of the pros and cons of the path chosen for the development of our young nation. As young people, we felt strongly that we had a point of view that we wanted to share.
At that time, just a few years following our Independence in 1966, the dominant thinking had favoured radical nationalism, with nationalisation of the bauxite and sugar industries high on the cards. That was expected, since both of the entrenched political parties and their leaders, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, had opted for a socialist orientation of our country. That was later written into the 1980 Republican Constitution.
That same charged atmosphere was very evident recently in the recording studio during the finals of the 2019 debate between the Diamond Secondary and McKenzie High Schools. The moot elicited responses as to whether humanitarian intervention undermines national sovereignty.
Our Constitution came into the discussion, since it provides that sovereignty belongs to the people, and that Guyana is a sovereign, indivisible state.
Debaters argued that no organisation or foreign state, under cover of “humanitarian intervention,” should use “aid” to undermine a sovereign government. There was a counter argument that humanitarian assistance, once given under mutual agreements, should be welcomed. Both sides, the Proposition and the Opposition, agreed that the genocide in Rwanda (1994) which claimed the lives of over a million people, could have been avoided had there been timely humanitarian intervention. This premise has been accepted all over the world.
Under Guyana’s Constitution, our children and peoples are guaranteed the right to life, education and to work, among other inalienable rights. During the debate, the students posited that these guarantees could be used as a guide for other civilized countries of the world. They also recognised that we must have a changing constitution which reflects new realities in the world, which would in turn strengthen the safeguards for human rights.
I did take the opportunity to point out at the debate final, that Guyana’s Constitution is a living document. It is not immutable, that it should indeed 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 for change.
Constitutional reform cannot be an academic exercise or a bureaucratic escapade. The process must start with consultation and consensus.
Recently, former Chairman of the Constitution Reform Commission and now leader of a new political party, Ralph Ramkarran, tried to pick a row with me that assumed that I had failed to effect constitutional reform. I should confirm here that as Prime Minister, I did table in the National Assembly, a Bill to set up a Consultative Constitutional Reform Commission. After its first reading, the Bill was, by consent of the parliamentary parties, sent to the House’s bi-partisan committee that was established to deal with such matters.
The committee did not conclude its examination of the Bill. The facts will show that the APNU+AFC Government did take the initiative, however, there is no evidence that the opposition wants to review or reform the Constitution.
With a Parliamentary structure that requires any major reform to secure the support of two-thirds of all elected members of the National Assembly, it stands to reason that major reforms would not take place until the government and the opposition fully buy in to the process and the recommendations. So, more meaningful efforts to amend Guyana’s Constitution will have to await the outcome of the March 2020 elections.
By taking arguments for Constitutional relevance and reform to the bright young minds of our children, we have begun to promote a new awareness among our citizens, and started meaningful discussion. What is very clear, even among our youngsters, is that they understand that we all should work towards strengthening the laws of the land, and stop blaming the Constitution for the political fissures and ethnic polarisation in our society.
As this awareness grows among our young, I am confident that the major players would be encouraged to amend the constitution, strengthen our democracy and fortify national sovereignty with the inclusion of citizens everywhere.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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