Rights talk bogs debate

Government leaders, opposition members, churches and business community representatives attempted to bridge the gap Thursday in differences over constitutional reform plans ahead of next week’s scheduled talks with the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

rights talk

All sides sit down to talk about the constitution Thursday at the Bodden Town Civic Centre. Photo: Brent Fuller

By press time, that debate had become mired in discussions over a bill of rights for the Cayman Islands, a topic that has been one of the most contentious issues discussed during Cayman’s constitutional modernisation process.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts started the public gathering by stating that the majority of the roughly 25 separate proposals for constitutional change had been agreed upon by the parties involved. Mr. Tibbetts said there were 15 proposals that were basically agreed to, four that had partial agreement and six issues where there was disagreement.

‘There is more that unites us than divides us,’ Mr. Tibbetts said to the group of MLAs and representatives from non-governmental entities gathered around the negotiating table at the Bodden Town Civic Centre. ‘Let us put country before self and try to come to agreement today.’

It was unknown at press time whether talks would actually wrap up in one day. Cabinet ministers had scheduled a press briefing for Friday morning, and Mr. Tibbetts gave every indication that he expected the discussions to finish Thursday.

The non-governmental groups which will be involved in talks with the UK next week; the Chamber of Commerce, the Cayman Islands Ministers’ Association, the Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh Day Adventists, and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee, have all submitted their proposals for constitutional change. The Chamber released a survey of its members’ views on constitutional issues just before Thursday’s talks started.

All sides agreed by consent that Cayman needs constitutional modernisation and that there was no desire to seek independence from the UK ‘any time in the near future.’ There was some brief debate over the proposed preamble of the constitution, but after that discussions focused on human rights.

It seems all sides still have far to go on the proposed bill of rights, what it should contain, and where it should be placed in law.

Both the ruling People’s Progressive Movement and the opposition United Democratic Party support the creation of a bill of rights for Cayman. However, the government feels the bill should be enshrined in the constitution, while opposition members believe it should be enacted in local law.

The parties have discussed and floated proposals concerning what specifically would be included in a bill of rights, but an official draft proposal has not been written since constitutional discussions resumed this year. .

The Cayman Islands Ministers Association, long concerned about the country’s ability to ‘Caymanise’ a bill of rights, noted that the UK itself had not enshrined such a bill in its own laws. Pastor Al Ebanks said the ministers’ organisation had grave concerns ‘in terms of (a bill of rights’) effects and the power of the courts to strike down the laws of parliament.’

Mr. Ebanks said the ministers were actually not opposed to enshrining a bill of rights in Cayman’s constitution, but wanted assurances that the elected government would be the ultimate arbiter in cases where constitutional rights issues were in dispute.

Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said that was indeed government’s plan.

‘In our proposal the courts would not have the power to strike down legislation,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘What is done about the incompatibility (of a particular government action with the bill of rights) is a matter of policy.’

The system government seeks to create is one similar to that in the UK, where a court will judge a particular law or action by the government to be incompatible with existing statutes. In that case, the court would send its ruling back to lawmakers who would deal with it.

In such a system, it is possible for legislators to simply ignore the courts, but Mr. McLaughlin has said that possibility is highly unlikely.

However, opposition MLA Cline Glidden Jr. said the issue raised other questions about a proposed bill of rights.

‘How do we get protection from parliament…if all we’re going to do is refer it back to parliament?’ Mr. Glidden asked.

Representatives of the Church of Seventh Day Adventists said they were uncertain about enshrining a document in the constitution which hadn’t even been drafted yet.

‘We find it difficult, maybe even a little irresponsible,’ Pastor Shian O’Connor said.

Mr. Tibbetts responded by stating that the UK was requiring the inclusion of a bill of rights and had informed Cayman’s elected government about that in a letter dated 3 April.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said that letter was prompted by what were essentially loaded questions from the ruling government. Mr. Bush said he believes the UK would accept a bill of rights in local legislation.

‘What they wanted was a bill of rights, but not that it had to be in the constitution,’ Mr. Bush said.

Members of the Human Rights Committee said the question was a crucial one, since any local legislation would be much easier to change for the government of the day.

‘The risk is, following each election, the rights could be changed,’ HRC representative Melanie McLaughlin said.

The Chamber of Commerce also expressed grave concerns in its survey about human rights legislation and how that would apply. Chamber members were deeply divided over whether a bill of rights should be included in Cayman’s constitution.