CCJ grants historic Constitutional relief to Maya people

The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) says the Belize government breached the right of the Maya community to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognised and protected Maya land rights.

The 25 members of the Maya Leaders Alliance had been fighting for recognition and protection of Maya land rights before international courts and the courts of Belize for more than 20 years.

Their appeal before the CCJ arose out of litigation precipitated by an incursion onto farm lands in the Golden Stream village by Francis Johnson, now deceased.

While the appeal was being heard by the CCJ in Belize, the appellants and the Belize government entered into a Consent Order on April 22, 2015 which recognised that the Maya system of customary land tenure gives rise to property rights within the meaning of the Constitution of Belize.

The Consent Order also requires the government to develop of a mechanism to recognise and protect Maya land rights in consultation with the Maya people. The parties are to report to the CCJ on the chosen mechanism by April 2016.

Under the Consent Order, the CCJ was asked to decide whether the appellants should be granted damages for breach of constitutional rights.

In the ruling handed down on Friday, the CCJ found that the Belize government “breached the appellants’ right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognised and protected Maya land rights”.

The CCJ emphasised that the protection of the law is linked to fairness and the rule of law.

The Court said it demands that the State take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honour its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

The CCJ, whose ruling was delivered by its president Sir Dennis Byron, said it could not find sufficient evidence to support the appellants’ claim for special damages arising out of the Golden Stream incursion. The CCJ said while acknowledging that the remedial action to be undertaken by the government under the Consent Order was reparatory, it felt that innovative use should be made of the broad jurisdiction to grant redress under the Constitution based on the centuries of oppression and marginalisation suffered by the Maya people.

The Court noted that the “boundaries of redress are not to be viewed as circumscribed by the concept of damages”.

It therefore ordered the Belize government to establish a fund of BZ$300,000 (One Belize dollar =US0.49 cents) as a first step towards compliance with its obligations under the Consent Order.