Constitutional changes to become law in Haiti a year after vote

More than a year after they were first voted, constitutional reforms in Haiti will finally become law, President Michel Martelly said Tuesday.

By Jacqueline Charles

Constitutional changes that were voted more than a year ago by Haitian lawmakers will finally be made legal, Haitian President Michel Martelly said Tuesday.

Martelly announced he will publish the amendments to Haiti’s 1987 constitution that underwent reform before he took office May 14, 2011, but were later annulled by him after some lawmakers said what was ultimately published was not what they voted.

“Today is an important day,” Martelly said during a news conference on the grounds of the presidential palace. “The three branches of power will advance together.”

Martelly made the announcement shortly before leaving Haiti for Brazil to join more than 100 world leaders and environmentalists at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, referred to as Rio+20. He was joined by members of the foreign diplomatic corps, the head of the Haitian Supreme Court and the presidents of both chambers of parliament. Highlighting some of the changes, he noted that finally there will be a constitutional court in place to resolve conflicts; 30 percent of the administration will be women, and as of today, the question about double nationality will finally be done with, he said.

“All Haitians are Haitians,” he said.

But while the long-awaited announcement was applauded by the international community, which has been pressuring a reluctant Martelly to publish the constitutional reforms, it has been met with resistance in Haiti. Leaders and constitutional experts debate about whether the amendments could legally be published or even if they should be. They argue that the process was deeply flawed, and it remains unclear if what’s being published by Martelly is indeed what was voted by parliamentarians over two days in May 2011 during a voting frenzy. Even some proponents of the changes argue that it’s too late and Haiti should work to create a more modern Constitution.

One of the biggest changes — the creation of a Permanent Electoral Council (CEP) to stage future elections — is unworkable from the start, experts note, because a two-thirds vote in each chamber is required to form its nine members. Haiti’s Senate lost 10 of its 30 members to expired terms last month, leaving it one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed.

“It’s impossible,” Monferrier Dorval, a constitutional expert at Haiti’ State University in Port-au-Prince, said about achieving the permanent CEP.

Dorval and other experts on Tuesday said they were awaiting an actual copy of what’s being published to analyze it. For instance, questions persist over the Creole and French versions they say; while the French amendments say the prime minister will replace the president if something happens, the Creole version of the 1987 Constitutions still names the head of the Supreme Court.

Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer who directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said while “it’s very much to President Martelly’s credit that he has resisted publishing the amendments so far, it is inconceivably short-sighted and irresponsible for the international community to force this on the Haitian government and its people.”

“There is more consensus that these amendments are a terrible idea, at least among people who understand constitutions,” Concannon said. “Some people like the amendments because of what some of them do — the quota for woman candidates, double nationality…But there is no one who seriously defends them as legal or as likely to advance the rule of law in Haiti, left or right, old or young, rich or poor.”

But the head of the Supreme Court and the Senate say they support the version being published. After 13 months of debates and missteps, a consensus has been reached, Senate President Simon Desras said.

“It’s time that justice be given to the four million Haitians who have been living outside of the country,” Desras said.

The debacle over the constitutional reforms was born in the final hours of the vote in May 2011 when a group of 16 senators — whose six years’ terms were set to expire — failed to win support for an extension of their terms. They wanted the extension as part of an effort to synchronize the election cycle to have one election every five years, something the international community desperately wanted. But during the vote, some lawmakers including those in the lower house opposed the extension, beginning the confusion about what passed and what didn’t.

Days after, then-President René Préval, who himself had opposed the extension of the senator’s mandate, signed the reforms and sent them to the government’s official journal for publication to become law. Soon, some lawmakers cried fraud, saying what was published was different from what actually passed. Martelly then annulled the changes and formed a special committee to resolve the issue.

Since then, Martelly has vacillated between publishing the changes and not doing so. But the international community, which supports changes to give Haitians living abroad greater rights in owning property and investing in Haiti, has pressured Martelly to publish the reforms.

“These amendments, though insufficient, are desirable and will strengthen a Constitution that is a source of Haitian pride,” the Club of Madrid, a group of former world leaders declared during a June 2011 visit to Haiti. “These improvements shall not be lost nor should their implementation be postponed as they add a net contribution to Haiti’s progress towards recovery, development, inclusion and freedom.”


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