Who’s in Charge Here?
Magna Carta Turns 799

May 22nd, 2014
by Robert Armstrong

English nobles forced King John to recognize their rights in the Magna Carta in June 1215.

English nobles forced King John to recognize their rights in the Magna Carta in June 1215.

This month in 1215, almost 800 years ago, English nobles forced their sovereign, King John, to sign a document recoginizing their rights and accepting limits on his own powers. The Magna Carta signed that day at Runnymede is considered the grandmother of all constitutions.

It is fitting that as we mark Magna Carta’s anniversary, this month’s Voice touches on a number of weighty constitutional issues.

First, Alfonso Ebanks reports on what appears to have been a warrantless raid on a beach resort on Guanaja by masked Honduran military personnel. Magna Carta was directed at precisely this sort of arbitrary and abusive exercise of state power.

In Island News, we report that the Honduran Supreme Court in May approved the extradition to the US of El Negro Lobo, a reputed drug-trafficking “kingpin” with ties to the Bay Islands. The Honduran Constitution had to be amended two years ago to make the extradition possible.

Also in Island News we learn the President of the Republic visited Roatan in May to discuss the security situation on the island in the wake of the robbery and murder of a cruise ship employee in April. During that meeting, sources tell us, he dismissed the suggestion of creating an autonomous criminal investigation unit for the island as unconstitutional.

At press time we are informed the President intends to visit Roatan again before the end of May to follow up. Meanwhile, high-level discussions are ongoing in person and by video conference, committees have been formed and action plans are being worked up. This is all for the good and long overdue. Many people of goodwill and good intentions are involved in this effort to once and for all address the island’s security needs. It would be a great tragedy, one might even say a farce, if those efforts were to be derailed by a dispute over who is in charge.

These are questions constitutions are supposed to address. Properly conceived and used, constitutions guarantee certain fundamental rights of individuals against the powers of the state while establishing a durable framework for governance and political competition. When poorly drafted, misused or misinterpreted, however, they can become straight-jackets.

The Honduran Constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly and adopted in 1982, sets up a unitary state, in contrast to the federal systems familiar to Americans and Canadians. At the time the country was under authoritarian military rule, and memories were still fresh of the domination of the country by foreign banana companies for much of the previous century. For much of its history, Honduras had been unable to exercise effective sovereignty over much of its national territory. The north coast was not linked to the capital by road or any other form of convenient transportation. When Great Britain handed the Bay Islands back to Honduras in an 1859 treaty, it took more than a year for Honduras to send anyone out here to formally accept control. It is therefore not surprising that the 1982 document puts a heavy stress on “sovereignty.”

However, times change, the needs of society change, and constitutions, and more importantly our interpretations of them, need to evolve accordingly or they become dead documents. Thomas Jefferson said that, while he did not advocate frequent changes in laws and constitutions, they must “go hand in hand with the progess of the human mind” and with changing circumstances. “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, it has become commonplace for some people from Tegucigalpa to put a stop to any conversation about devolution of authority within Honduras, whether it be through model cities or whatever, by citing the “indivisibility” of Honduran sovereignty under the constitution. This, however, is a misconception of “sovereignty.” In a democratic republic, sovereignty resides in the people, not the head of state. Devolving authority down to levels of government closer to the people, therefore, is not diluting or dividing sovereignty but entrusting it to its owners.

With the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest murder rate, one would think Honduras would be open to any and all constructive suggestions from any level for how to improve the situation. One can’t very well say, “We will protect you” and then not only not do it but prevent others from doing it for themselves.

Be that as it may, perhaps we could find inspiration here from an unlikely source: China, which is not exactly known for rule of law or constitutionalism. If there is one man responsible for turning post-Maoist China into the emerging superpower of the 21st century, it is Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s philosophy and approach to governance is best summed up in two famous quotations. The first was, “Cross the river by feeling for the stones.” In other words, improvise at every step, depending on what works, or we fall into the mud. The other was, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.”

So, as we gather together the best minds to devise ways to make our island a safer place, perhaps it is best to put constitutional debates aside for the moment and avoid words like “sovereignty” and “autonomy” altogether. Let’s just figure out how to catch the mice.

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