The prime minister of Belize, Johnny Briceño, has sharply criticised UK PM Rishi Sunak’s refusal to apologise for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and said it was “quite likely” Belize would be the next member of the Commonwealth realm to become a republic.
Speaking in the country’s capital, Belmopan, Briceño argued that the British government had a moral responsibility to apologise for the atrocities of slavery, and added to calls throughout the English-speaking Caribbean for financial reparations from the UK.
“I think he [Sunak] has a moral responsibility to be able to offer at the very least an apology,” Briceño said. “He should have a better appreciation of it because of his ancestry.
“When you read and hear about the plundering that took place in the land of his ancestors, I do believe that he should have offered an apology.”
His comments came as a senior member of the Jamaican government said it would begin a process after the coronation to bring in an elected head of state.
Sunak, whose parents are of Punjabi Indian heritage, told parliament last week that he would not apologise for Britain’s role in slavery and colonialism. In response to a question from the Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, he said: “No. What I think our focus should now be on doing is, of course, understanding our history and all its parts, not running away from it, but right now making sure that we have a society which is inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds.”
Briceño, who leads Belize’s centre-left People’s United party, took office in 2020, and in 2021 passed a parliamentary resolution committing the government to seek reparatory justice from the UK “on behalf of the former slaves and their descendants of Belize”.
Located in Central America, the former British colony is a member of the Caricom intergovernmental organisation of 20 Caribbean countries. The body has long advocated for reparative justice, and its reparations commission states that European governments connected to slavery and colonialism should follow a 10-point plan, which includes a public apology, commitments to education programmes, and cancellation of national debts.
Belize is one of 14 members of the Commonwealth realm, where the crown remains the symbolic head of state. It is the only country within the realm that King Charles III has never visited.
Last year, the Belizean government approved a bill to create a constitutional commission, which convened in November last year. The commission, which includes representation from many civil groups as well as Belize’s two main political parties, will consider a broad range of reform issues, including whether to become a republic.
There is bipartisan support for such a move, and Belize is now the only Caribbean country in the Commonwealth realm where the crown could be removed with a parliamentary vote rather than a referendum.
Jamaica’s minister for legal and constitutional affairs, Marlene Malahoo Forte, told Sky News that it could put the idea of replacing the British king as head of state with an elected presidency to a referendum as soon as 2024.
“While the United Kingdom is celebrating the coronation of the king, that is for the United Kingdom,” she said. “Jamaica is looking to write a new constitution … which will sever ties with the monarch as our head of state.”
Although Briceño has said he will put the commission’s broad recommendations to a referendum, he did not rule out removing the crown as head of state via parliament after the commission’s report. The recommendations are due next year.
Asked if he believed that Belize could be the next state to leave the Commonwealth realm after Barbados’s exit in 2021, Briceño replied: “I think the chance is quite high. It’s quite likely.”
He said he believed Belize would remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations, the political association of 56 states, mostly former territories of the British empire.
Belize will be represented at the king’s coronation by its governor general, Dame Froyla Tzalam.
Asked whether Belizeans were enthused by the event, Briceño said: “There is no excitement. We are so far away from the UK … You don’t see people taking out their union jack flags or anything.”