Chairman of the main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), Vincent Roberts, has raised serious concerns about the Rights and Freedoms Bill to be voted upon by the electorate at next month’s Referendum on Constitutional Reform in Grenada.
Roberts told reporters at the weekly press conference held by Congress that he is not “sufficiently informed” to vote with confidence on the bill which is one of seven to be included on the referendum ballot on October 27.
“…Every day I am hearing new things popping up – they are speaking about the human rights aspect (of the Rights and Freedoms Bill) and that the bill is so modern and advanced but it is unenforceable. There are aspects of the recommended changes that cannot be enforced in law.
It is just nice writing”, he said.
Roberts took issue in particular with Chapter 1(a) of the proposed Rights and Freedoms Bill, entitled Directive Principles of State Policies, which addresses the duty of the state in a number of areas like protecting the environment and natural resources of the country.
The bill also addresses the protection of Grenadians from physical exploitation, physical abuse, mental abuse, as well as to ensure that mechanisms are in place for children when it comes to issues dealing with the welfare of the child and the duty of the state to exercise fiscal responsibility.
According to the bill, “Parliament may provide for any of the principles set out in this chapter to be enforceable in any court or tribunal and unless parliament so provides in respect of any such principles no principle set out in this chapter shall be enforceable in any court or tribunal.
According to Roberts, he is interpreting the bill to be suggesting that “these things are all principles to guide the state but it is not enforceable unless, as it says, a law is passed in Parliament with respect of such principles”.
He felt that “all of the points that are read in this chapter seems to be things which are just guidelines and are not enforceable unless the law is bound to that effect”.
THE NEW TODAY contacted attorney-at-law, Ruggles Ferguson who is a member of the Constitution Reform Advisory Committee (CRAC) for comment on the controversial Directive Principles of State Polices, which is one of the three parts in the 14-page Bill.
In a telephone interview on Monday afternoon, Ferguson said the Human Rights and Freedoms Bill comprises the existing Fundamental Rights and Freedoms chapter of the current Constitution, which the new bill proposes to enhance, as well as two new inclusions – the controversial Directive Principles of State Policies and Gender Equality.
He pointed out that “Directive Principles of State Policies are not individual rights” but just an expression (in which the state is directed to do certain things).
Ferguson described them as simple guidelines to cover social and economic rights and what he called “a moral compass within which the state will operate”.
He said that social and economic rights are not normally enforceable in a court of law “but they impose duties and responsibilities upon the state towards its citizens”.
He also said that “directive principles are not enforceable from the stand point that an individual can’t go to the court to enforce a right, but the state is bound by it and the people of the state would know what the directive principles are”.
Ferguson explained that if a government is not adhering to the principles as set down then civil society groups, non-governmental organisations and citizens alike can raise issues in relation to the particular principles, to ensure that the government adheres to its duties and obligations.
“Whereas fundamental rights and freedoms belong to the individual, they are individual rights that the individual possesses (but) with directive principles, essentially it says, whichever party takes power, whatever the manifesto of that party is, it must be guided by these directive principles because the Constitution, which is the supreme law lays these principles down as directive principles.
“So for example if the duty of the state is to protect the environment then part of the whole approach by a government or a Cabinet is to pursue policies that would protect the environment and the duty would be for parliament to pass laws that would protect the environment.
“Generally, directive principles are not things that are just enforceable, they are broad guidelines, but Parliament can pass laws to make some of them enforceable – so, in fact, under directive principles it can be enforced because it allows Parliament to pass certain enforceable provisions.
The attorney indicated that Grenada is the first country within the sub-regional Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) to include directive principles in a referendum.
The NDC Chairman also took issue with what he labeled the politicising of the Constitution reform process by Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell.
“As much as it has been said that this (Constitution reform) should not be politicised, it is politicised because (the) Cabinet filtered it and the Prime Minister has taken a position (during a recent sitting of the House of Representatives) saying that he is one, calling for a yes vote and two, trying to ridicule people who call for a no vote””, he said.
Roberts stated that “the People of Grenada have a constitutional right to decide for themselves and one can choose to vote yes or no and to advocate yes or no”.
“So the Prime Minister trying to ridicule people calling for a no vote is a total lack of respect for people’s rights”, he said.
“I have heard people calling in (on radio and TV stations) and just saying that I am voting yes and not because they understand the bill but out of support for the Prime Minister”, he added.
Speculation is rife that the ruling New National Party (NNP) of PM Mitchell has sent out messages to its supporters to vote “yes” to all the bills on Referendum Day.
The senior NDC official also took issue with the recent intensification of the sensitisation process about the proposed bills for the Referendum by CRAC members.
Roberts branded the move as a “lame attempt at this 99th hour to achieve something, which in my opinion cannot be achieved in such a short period of time”.
However, he urged Grenadians to get registered and come out to vote on Referendum Day in order to have their say on the planned changes to the Constitution.
He reiterated that the NDC is not convinced that the “recommendations will enhance the democracy in anyway, assist and make our economic development better, smoother, easier, or remove some of the arbitrary powers given to the Prime Minister under the present constitution”.
“You don’t have a chance if you are not registered, you can only contribute if you are registered”, Roberts said.