Media Center



January 20, 2002 - Bridgetown, Barbados

Honorable Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Billie Miller, Honorable Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, Other members of the Barbados Cabinet, Mr. Director-General George Goodwin of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Mr. Christopher Hackett, of the United Nations Development Programme, Professor Ralph Carnegie of the University of the West Indies, Representatives of the Diplomatic Corps and international organizations, ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to this Conference on Constitutional Reform in the Caribbean.”

Minister Miller, please convey my best wishes for a speedy recovery to the Right Honorable Prime Minister Owen Arthur.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before I begin my remarks, I would like to express my gratitude to the UNDP for its assistance in making this conference a reality.

Likewise I would like to recognize the good offices of the University of the West Indies, and in particular, the diligent cooperation of Professor Ralph Carnegie, one of the pre-eminent experts on constitutional reform in the Caribbean. The substantive input of Professor Carnegie and the many others from the University of the West Indies system ensures that this conference will indeed be informative, provocative and fruitful.

I would like to thank the Governments of the United States of America, Canada and Great Britain for providing crucial financial support for this conference. .

Lastly, I take this opportunity to express our appreciation to the Government of Barbados for providing the necessary support and hospitality for this important meeting..

On September 11, as we all witnessed, democracy came under attack. Terrorism was added to the growing list of threats to our democracies and the rights and liberties of our citizens. While New York and Washington were under attack, a day of tragedy that will always be remembered, Ministers from all the Caribbean states and those of the other nations of the OAS, were approving, in Lima Peru, the “Inter-American Democratic Charter,” a seminal document that calls for an active agenda to defend democracy in times of crisis and to promote it before crisis threatens.

It is important to recognize that democracy in the English-speaking Caribbean has proven to be more resilient than in any other sub-region of the developing world. Barbados is a case in point. This country has enjoyed three centuries of parliamentary rule, an experience unparalleled in the world. Overall, the region is known for its democratic institutions and its appreciation for democratic values and practices. Caribbean people are active in politics and civil society, and freedom of expression is the norm.

But in spite of that, we are all aware that there is a new spirit, one that wants to deepen democracy, a spirit that is now embodied in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The impetus for constitutional reform stems from a number of events and trends in the region. All the political, social and economic challenges and opportunities globalization has brought have opened a dialogue on many new issues including the components of the political systems. That is the reason why every institution of those systems is under analysis in the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. This scrutiny is no longer aimed only at matters of governance, but also at those of participation, legitimacy, accountability, and fairness. As a result, for example, when electoral results do not accurately reflect the composition of parliament, many call for Constitutional Reform. This is what happened after the 1998 elections in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, when the party with the majority of the popular vote did not win the majority of seats in parliament.

Other elections have yielded clean sweeps or near clean sweeps, resulting in little or no opposition representation at all. As a result, many start to look at the advantages of proportional representation. There is also the ongoing challenge of ensuring an equitable distribution of power in ethnically complex nations such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago and increased fear of political violence. There is a call everywhere for dialogue, for more participation, and as we have seen in almost all the elections observed by the OAS in the Caribbean, there is a continuing need for political party reform, especially as it relates to general funding and campaign financing. There is concern for excessive partisanship, for the effective separation of powers, for the efficacy of the no-confidence mechanism, for the independence of the judiciary, for the appropriate size of legislatures.

We hope that this conference will contribute to move forward the understanding of these issues and that as a result the political systems of the Caribbean states will be enriched and strengthened. Obviously, it will not be easy in a day and a half to cover all these and other pertinent issues that are part of our agenda. But this will be a strong beginning.

It is in this context that this Constitutional Reform Conference brings together many different perspectives. We have here before us some 60 participants representing 14 countries and territories of the Caribbean: men and women who represent Government, civil society, academia and the international community.

Tonight we will have the opportunity to hear, through the voice of Minister Miller, Prime Minister Arthur, who as always will bring, new insights, and clear statements. He is very well respected not only in the Caribbean Community but also throughout the hemisphere. He has extraordinary authority to balance the need for continuity with the aspirations of change. He speaks on behalf of a country that is probably the one of most strongest and most stable democracies in the Americas.

Tomorrow’s session will open with a timely keynote speech by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We are all familiar with the political dynamic in that country arising out of the disputed elections of 1998, which led to the calling of new elections through the Grand Beach Accord, signed in Grenada. Prime Minister Gonsalves has spoken and written extensively about the need for constitutional reform both in his country and in the region, not only as it relates to electoral systems, but to modernization of the state, strengthening of the judiciary, and guaranteeing the fundamental rights of citizens. He wants to diminish the power of the Prime Minister, to reform parliament to make it more responsive and responsible to people. He has made constitutional reform a priority of his administration and I am sure that his insights will provide the spark for a meaningful debate.

Three decades since the first countries gained independence, there is a strong sense throughout the region that democracy needs to be revitalized. At the heart of the constitutional reform issue is the Westminster System itself. Many in the region question whether the Westminster model inherited from Great Britain guarantees good governance. There is no doubt that the system has served well the people of the region and that it is the source of a strong parliamentary democracy. But the model is changing, although we cannot say there is a “fresh” start, expression that is strange to the British way of thinking and doing. Perhaps the main sources of change are the international currents that have been unleashed as a consequence of the insertion of the country in the European Union and its supranational juridical framework.

After numerous actions of the organs of the Union, in particular the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, it is not clear whether the classical principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which is opposed to the idea of limiting the legislator, is outmoded, or better, is being reshaped. Some judges have gone so far as to say in their rulings that “ our treaty obligations to the European Union are the Supreme law of this country, taking precedence over Acts of Parliament “

In the same sense is important to mention the increase of judicial power as a consequence not only of European Union law but also because of the adoption in 1988 of the Human Rights Act, which authorizes judges to make a declaration of incompatibility of a domestic statute with the European Convention of Human Rights without invalidating the act of parliament. Some observers have stated that this new function of the courts only keeps the forms parliamentary sovereignty but ignores its substance. Some have even recalled that since the seventeenth century no judge has dared to say that a law of parliament that is against fundamental rights or natural law should not be applied. There is no doubt that when judicial review includes acts of parliament, even if it cannot annul them, the parliamentary sovereignty starts to resemble the US system.

And in the Caribbean the winner-take-all system, especially in smaller states, can create imbalances, and some close observers of politics in this region are concerned that power is too concentrated in the executive. A number of leaders and academics have advocated moderate reform, while others have proposed more radical changes. We will hear plenty of arguments in developing the agenda of this Conference.

One important focus of the constitutional review process is local government. Many in the Caribbean agree that democratically elected local bodies are critical for enhancing popular participation, self-governance and more direct citizen involvement. Perspectives on local government vary in different parts of the region. Multi-island states, such as Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda are seeking effective ways not only to meet infrastructure and other basic needs of citizens living on different islands but to offer a government that provides adequate representation to all territories. Larger countries, such as Jamaica and Guyana, already have some experience with local government and are looking to enhance their systems. Overall, effective implementation remains the challenge.

Regional integration is another important part of the discussion. Many Caribbean leaders, including Errol Barrow, the first Prime Minister of Barbados, who will be commemorated by a state holiday tomorrow, have advocated greater integration. But efforts to achieve greater political and economic union have been uneven. The West Indian Federation ultimately failed, but integration found renewed expression in the creation of CARICOM.

Today, it is generally recognized that integration is crucial for the Caribbean to be able to compete in a globalized economy. As we have seen with the controversy about banana exports, the smaller economies of the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable. The region is therefore working toward implementation of the Single Market and Economy and addressing the constitutional issues involved. The Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States, with its shared currency and court system is one model that deserves special study. There is no doubt that the negotiations for creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas and even the new round of negotiations within the WTO also pose a significant challenge. Regarding the judiciary, there is the ongoing proposal for a Caribbean Court of Justice, which also has important constitutional implications for the participating countries because it can be a significant restrain to parliaments. The initiative could contribute to strengthen the judiciaries, the respect for fundamental rights of citizens, and to improve the checks and balances that should make for better functioning of democracies. . Clearly, constitutional reform cannot be addressed in one Caribbean country without taking into consideration the economics and politics of the region as a whole.

Then, of course, there is the question of the mechanisms through which the constitutional review process is carried out. We will look at the efforts of the various reform commissions that have been established in the region, and consider the reports and recommendations that have been produced and the degree to which they have been implemented. Many experts and participants have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the process and, in particular, the need to ensure greater citizen input. We will explore mechanisms by which this can be accomplished to ensure inclusion of all points of view.

Lastly, it is our hope that this conference will provide guidance to the international community. Indeed, this conference originated in the requests for cooperation that several Caribbean countries made to the OAS and the UNDP in the area of constitutional reform. It is interesting to note that eleven Caribbean member states are currently working on or considering reforming their constitutions.

I am therefore pleased by the presence of so many representatives of the international community and encourage them to participate actively in the conference proceedings. Through this gathering, we hope that the international community can formulate a comprehensive strategy to take advantage of past experiences, maximize scarce resources, and contribute the most to these ongoing efforts.

In closing, I would like to emphasize that the OAS does not come here with any pre-conceived notions for constitutional reform. We only want to support a discussion that is creative, meaningful and useful – by including many different points of view and encouraging lively discussions –, and we hope that it will contribute in some small but helpful way.