A number of bills were passed in the Senate on Wednesday, some without contention. However, there were several bills that sparked debate, one of which is the Non-Governmental Organizations Amendment Bill, 2013. This piece of legislation seeks to “Make provisions for public access to information held by the Registrar; to create offences; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” Senator representing the Business Community, the Hon. Mark Lizarraga, argues that in order for businesses to not be unjustly reprimanded, the bill must include a crucial element – intent.
Hon. Mark Lizarraga – Senator
“We propose, Mr. President that the words, ‘knowingly’, ‘recklessly’ or ‘negligently’ may be added in each of these three subsections. Mr. Presidnet, these changes would be consistent with 18A subsection D and subsection E which provides that the action must be done fraudulently. This change would also address a situation where a party doesn’t know that the document he utters is forged or a statement in his application or other document is false. The person may not know it; additionally, Mr. President, the fines in this bill, we believe, are extremely draconian and could, in certain circumstances kill a legitimate NGO that committed any of the above infractions by genuine error. An NGO is run by staff, by many members, a lot of them fall into the realm of volunteers and mistakes can be made and yet the costs of these mistakes are exorbitant. I don’t know if too many other legislations that impose fines, impose such hefty fines and Mr. President, just for clarity, the fines shall not be in excess of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and a term for two years, in one instance and then in the other instance, a fine not less than one hundred thousand dollars but shall not be in excess of five hundred thousand dollars; I hope this is not an attempt, and maybe I should not say it but I was going to say that I hope this is not an attempt of NGO busting.”
Senator the Hon. Collet Montejo, who has served in various non-governmental entities also contested to the bill, pleading with the Senate that they take a second look at the legislation and make revisions accordingly. In fact, Senator Montejo stated his regrets that there was no representation from the NGOs to assess a bill that may well have significant effects on them.
Hon. Collet Montejo – Senator
“Having served in several NGOs and recognizing that mistakes are very possible. As a matter of fact, one particular NGO I served on breached in at least two of these, and to charge that NGO fifty thousand dollars for a mistake that was far from intentional. I’m sitting here and I’m saying, we should have a representative from those NGOs sitting in this chamber. We should have a representative sitting here, to answer and to be able to stand up. NGOs have done tremendous work in this country, and I think this law has to be looked at again. I would urge you guys not to allow us to pass this particular law today. In its wording it is way off. It is an outright attack on NGOs that have been serving this country honorably for so long.”
Responding to their concerns was the Hon. Godwin Hulse.
Hon. Godwin Hulse – Senator
“It may seem draconian, but I like the final statement of Senator Shoman, where she says there are so many people out there who may try to attempt to construe devices, particularly in today’s world, to mar and to stain those NGOs that really are genuine and producing good work, and those people who generally and genuinely seek to volunteer and to help to uplift the Belizean people.”
Another bill that members challenged was much too far-reaching is The Interception of Communications Amendment Bill, a bill which intends to “provide for the Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit to make an application for an interception direction.” The Hon. Lizarraga argued that the bill falls into direct conflict with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution.
Hon. Mark Lizarraga – Senator
“The court , for an interception direction or warrant, under Section 3, claims that the DPP can apply for an offence falling within any of the preceeding paragraphs. We certainly understand why the DPP would need to have all of these matters under her per-view. But we question would the Director of the FUI needs such? This would emphasize that the Director of the FIU cannot overstep the bounds of the DPP in other crimes. We ask, Mr. President, why would the Act give the Director of Intelligence Unit the same access to the DPP in relations to some of the crimes I mentioned earlier?
Senator for the Opposition the Hon. Lisa Shoman next endorsed her colleague.
Hon. Lisa Shoman – Senator
”Not only is he absolutely correct, but I think it needs to be said again that the Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit does not have the constitutional standing that the DPP does in terms of being and independent body, standing on its own, which takes direction from no one. No matter what any politician might think; and is important to note that the DPP’s mandate under the schedule to the intersection of Communications Act is so wide, because, properly, all criminal offences fall under the per-view of the DPP. The Director of the Financial Intelligence Unit, however, only has the remit to look at the offences that the Director has the power to look at, under the laws of Belize…and that does not include the Criminal Code”.