Belize continues to deny fundamental human rights
Many Latin American countries have long struggled to administer justice fairly and efficiently. Even though most of the regionâ€™s constitutions guarantee an array of individual rights, large gaps have existed between the rights promised and the actual redress delivered by the judicial system. Indeed, the regionâ€™s constitutions have historically proven to be insufficient to protect the rights of socially and politically weak groups. But in the case of Belize, the Constitution, and more importantly the Criminal Code has been clear with regards to minority rights, especially in dealing with homosexuals.
In blatant legal discrimination, the notorious Section 53 of the Belize Criminal Code has recently come under intense scrutiny with a pending court case for its revision, and hopeful elimination.Â However, the outlook appears bleak in a country that constitutionally labels itself as a â€˜Christianâ€™ state.
The United Belize Advocacy Movementâ€”UNIBAM filed the high-profiled court case against the Attorney General and the Government of Belize to overturn the provisions of Section 53 that outlaw â€˜carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animalâ€™.Â Their argument against the part of the Criminal Code is that the law discriminates against consenting partners, and that their individual rights to privacy are violated.Â However, the Belize Council of Churches and Evangelical Association of Churches, along with the Belizean Government, argue that the elimination of Section 53 would spur further laws advocating homosexual rights.
This very debate and discussion is one that has permeated the Americas in recent years, but Belize remains the only country in Central America that outright outlaws all homosexual activity.Â There is no country in Central America that recognizes same-sex marriage, but all countries, other than Belize, recognize the legality of same-sex activity under various provisions protecting privacy.Â In fact, in 2003, Belize enacted legislation that imposed a possible 10-year prison sentence on males convicted of such activity, as outlined by Section 53 of the Criminal Code.
However, the judicial systemâ€”one based on civil law rather than common lawâ€”is not fully equipped to defend individual and human rights in Belize, so this matter may have to wait for a deficient political system to accept responsibility.Â Not surprisingly, to this date, no major political parties have supported the overturning, the amending or the elimination of Section 53 of the Criminal Code.Â In fact, Dean Barrow, the current Prime minister of Belize, recently said:
I would limit myself to saying that the government as a government has taken the position that it needs to argue for the constitutionality of the law that is in place that’s being challenged and so I would not go beyond that official position. I am not prepared to comment on my own physiological conviction or lack thereof. That is the official position of the government. This is one time when it might be wise for me to say nothing more.
Prime Minister Barrow continued his remarks by condemning President Obamaâ€™s recent critique of states that continue to persecute homosexuals.Â He argued that this issue is one for Belize to deal with and if President Obama wishes to punish states by removing foreign aid for continuing such practice, then â€˜they will have to cut off their aidâ€™.Â However, the U.S. is not likely to enforce its recent criticism by cutting off foreign aid because Central America, and in particular Belize, is critical to the implementation of U.S. drug policy.
So, this issue remains trapped in an independent judiciary that is not really equipped with advancing human rights and has a rather non-existent record in doing so.Â Nonetheless, the privacy argument under which the lawsuit has been filed allows the Belizean Supreme Court to possibly interject, in a monumental way, to protect issues that extend far beyond just homosexual rights.
If the judges take the very unpopular legal position and support UNIBAM, and thus entertain the idea of changing the law, they risk substantial political blowback in a country defined as â€˜Christianâ€™ and in a region that notoriously abuses human rights.Â Nevertheless, Belize remains the â€˜backwardâ€™ nation in a region that has at least decriminalized homosexual activity but has yet to further homosexual rights, especially in the area of marriage.
Thus, the debate continues and the struggle remains, but Belize, and the judiciary, has the ability to change course and act under a disguise of privacy, and at least rule that such activity should not be criminalized.Â If the judges act first in a decisive manner, the possibility of progressive politicians advancing the cause in the public arena greatly increases, but if the witch-hunt laws that enable imprisonment and arrest remain in effect, the cause will continue to be suppressed, and human rights will continue to be denied.
Belize, indeed, is at a crossroads, but the future remains rather bleak.Â Itâ€™s time for the judges to act and address a fundamental human rights issue in defending minorities.Â At least, it should do so on the basis of individual privacy.
*The case is set to be heard on January 30, 2011.