Urgent constitution talks begin

The latest round of talks on Cayman’s revised constitution began Tuesday with a sense of urgency as government officials sought the completion of a first-draft proposal by the end of discussions this week.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said this round of talks, the second between the Cayman Islands delegation and the United Kingdom, must produce a draft that government hopes will be presented to the public for review.

A third round of talks set to occur in the UK are contingent upon negotiators putting together some kind of first-draft proposal to review, according to Mr. Tibbetts

Those involved in the talks, including a delegation from the UK, Cayman government ministers, opposition party members, representatives from two local churches, the Chamber of Commerce and the Human Rights Committee appear to have their work cut out for them if that is to be achieved.

A working draft of the constitution, printed on 24 October and given to the press by Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush, included what were essentially blank spaces in the areas which dealt with the creation of voter-initiated referendums and government regulations concerning public debt.

Mr. Bush spoke only generally about the draft proposal at the beginning of Tuesday’s talks, and did not address any specific issues.

‘The people of these islands want less politics, not more,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘I believe what is on paper will give us more politics…more infighting.’

A main sticking point in the talks continues to be the bill of rights. Neither of the two churches or the Human Rights Committee agree with what is proposed

Mr. Tibbetts attempted to sound a hopeful note on the issue.

‘Significant progress has been made…most notably on the bill of rights,’ Mr. Tibbetts said at the opening of the talks Tuesday morning. ‘Agreement on a bill of rights appears within reach.’

Both the Cayman Islands Ministers Association and the Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh-day Adventists opposed the wording in the 24 October working draft which was written by the UK delegation.

‘As a church we cannot and will not support any constitutional provision that, in our view, will have the effect of undermining the strong moral, social and spiritual values of this country,’ Seventh-day Adventist Pastor Eric Clarke said.

The main point of contention among the churches is section 16 (2) in the working draft, known as the ‘non-discrimination’ section of the Bill of Rights.

The section defines discriminatory acts as those affording different treatment to people based ‘on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, age, mental or physical disability, property, birth or other status.’

Pastor Al Ebanks with the Cayman Islands Ministers’ Association said phrases such as ‘on any ground such as’ and ‘or other status’ in the section could leave the door open to Caymanian or British courts forcing the islands to accept gay marriages, for instance.

‘The constitutional modernisation exercise…has been given no mandate to engineer changes in those values that have been conceived of elsewhere but not accepted by the Caymanian people,’ a statement from the Ministers’ Association read.

The association has asked that the word ‘unjustifiable’ be added to make section 16 (2) of the bill of rights definition of discrimination read ‘affording different and unjustifiable treatment’ to make it clear that it is injustice the law seeks to oppose, rather than what the ministers’ group calls ‘justifiable different treatment.’

The Human Rights Committee opposes the churches’ views, and has recommended changes which would keep the bill of rights compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights and include specific aspects of Caymanian culture as well.

The human rights group has proposed using different language in the bill which states: ‘nothing…requires the legal recognition of same sex marriages or gender reassignment, such matters being in the discretion of parliament.’

Both the rights committee and Chamber of Commerce asked for a simplification of the language contained in the bill of rights and constitution in general so the lay public would be able to easily read and understand the changes being made.

The UK delegation also eliminated most of the changes to the current powers of the governor proposed by Cayman’s ruling government. The elected government has sought to reduce the governor’s emergency powers and subject all of his or her decisions to judicial review.

Government ministers have not commented on the change made by the UK, but the Cayman Islands Ministers’ Association opposed keeping so much power concentrated in one person’s hands.

Governor Stuart Jack and Attorney General Sam Bulgin are attending the talks, but only as observers and have not publicly weighed in on the discussions.