Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-JAMAICA: New Constitution to Give British Queen the Boot

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, Oct 8 2003 (IPS) - Jamaicans are moving closer to dropping the queen of England as their titular head of state and severing the country’s last formal ties with its old colonial power.

The ruling People’s National Party (PNP) administration is determined to abolish Jamaica’s existing monarchical system of government by the next general elections, as part of the country’s attempt at constitutional reform.

“After 41 years of independence, the time has come where the final symbol of the country must be one with whom we have our own national connection,” Prime Minister Percival Patterson said in a recent speech. “The time has come when we must have a head of state chosen by us, representative of us and immediately accountable to us.”

The ruling PNP favours an executive style presidency with an elected president as head of state, while the opposition Jamaica Labour Party wants a ceremonial representative, with the president largely assuming the ceremonial functions now carried out by the governor general, the queen’s representative in the country.

The country’s current constitution with the queen of England as head of state came into effect shortly before Jamaica gained political independence from Britain in 1962.

After independence, Jamaica remained within the British Commonwealth, and is one of 12 Caribbean countries that retain the queen as head of state. There has been repeated criticism over the ensuing decades that public participation in that process was inadequate, limited to 30 days for submissions.

The current reform process has been over a decade in the making. In December 1991, the government established a constitutional commission to hear proposals on constitutional reform. The commission submitted its final report to Parliament in 1994.

In 1999, four bills were tabled in Parliament to advance the cause of constitutional reform, including one expanding the categories of persons eligible for Jamaican citizenship, and another establishing the office of the public defender. A charter of rights bill was also tabled in Parliament two years ago, but has not yet been passed. The charter would replace chapter three of the Jamaican constitution, which outlines the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizenry.

The government has also embarked on a controversial process of revoking the constitutional right of appeal to the United Kingdom-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and is preparing to establish, along with other Caribbean countries, the Caribbean Court of Justice as the region’s final court of appeal.

The Prime Minister is now pressing to complete these reforms within 18 months.

“I have no doubt that the majority of the people of Jamaica are ready to confine to history the last vestiges of colonialism by establishing our own regional and final court of appeal, and by the appointment of a Jamaican as the embodiment of our national identity in the role of head of state,” Patterson says.

But chairperson of the local human rights group Jamaicans for Justice Carolyn Gomes describes the progress towards constitutional reform as “pathetic” and objects to what she sees as a piecemeal approach.

“It just seems (like) waffling around in a political soup,” Gomes told IPS.

“The monarchy we can dismiss tomorrow, but the dialogue that we need to be having is the broad system of governance that we have,” she said. “We need to be having that broad-based constitutional discussion, not little bits and pieces here and there.”

Merely changing the system of government from a queen to a ceremonial president will have no impact on the country’s fundamental problems, she says.

Another group that says the reform process does not go far enough is one of the country’s minor political parties, the National Democratic Movement (NDM), which was founded several years ago on a platform of constitutional change. NDM General Secretary Michael Williams describes the proposed changes as cosmetic.

“It is tinkering, and it is not going to affect in any way the serious issues that need to be addressed. The most fundamental change that needs to take place with the Jamaican constitution is to give sovereignty to the people of Jamaica,” Williams told Radio Jamaica in an interview.

“We cannot accept any constitutional change unless it is going to be fundamental,” Williams argued. “Just to change the governor general and call him president, and give him the same powers the governor general has now, is not going to the heart of the issue.”

The NDM has championed a call for radical reform that would see the prime minister elected by the people in a separate election from that held to elect members of Parliament, and with a president as head of state to be appointed by Parliament.

For human rights group Jamaicans for Justice, issues that remain to be addressed include concerns about the protection of rights under the proposed new legislation, the need for structured systems of participation in governance, and the balance of power between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

Given these concerns, Carolyn Gomes questions the prime minister’s stated timetable of 18 months to complete the reform process.

“Why go through all that effort for that little gain? Two years, I would think, would be a good time to have a broader-based discussion,” Gomes said.

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