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Belize

3. Legal Regime    

Transparency of the Regulatory System

There are no reports that Government policies, processes and laws significantly distort or discriminate against foreign investors.  Nonetheless, some investors have complained of systematic shortfalls including that the regime for incentives did not always meet their needs, that land titles are not always reliable and secure, and that bureaucratic delays or corruption can hinder doing business in Belize.

There are no NGOs or private sector associations that manage regulatory processes.  NGOs and private sector associations do lobby on behalf of their members but have no statutory authority.

Regulatory authority exists both at the local and national levels with national laws and regulations being most relevant to foreign businesses.  The cabinet dictates government policies that are enacted by the legislature and implemented by the various government ministries.  There are also quasi-governmental organizations mandated by law to manage specific regulatory processes on behalf of the Government of Belize, e.g. the Belize Tourism Board, BELTRAIDE, and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority.  Regulations exist at the local level, primarily relating to property taxes and registering for trade licenses to operate businesses in the municipality.

Some supra-national organizations and regulatory structures exist.  For example, some elements of international trade affecting U.S. businesses are affected by CARICOM treaties, as in the case of the export of sugar within CARICOM.

Accounting, legal, and regulatory systems are consistent with international norms.  Publicly owned companies generally receive audits annually, and the reports are in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards and International Standards on Auditing.

Draft bills or regulations are generally made available for public comment through a public consultation process.  In many instances, relevant ministries submit draft legislation to interested stakeholders for consultation on potential reforms.  Once introduced in the House of Representatives, draft bills are sent to Standing Committees, which then meet and invite the public and interested persons to review, recommend changes, or object to draft laws prior to further debate.  The mechanism for drafting bills, enacting regulations and legislation generally apply across the board and include investment laws and regulations.  Public comments on draft legislation are not generally posted online nor made publicly available.  In a few instances, laws are passed quickly without meaningful publication, public review or public debate.

Government does not generally disclose the basis on which it reviews regulations.  Some government agencies make scientific studies publicly available for example studies related to environmental impact assessments.

Some government ministries also make available policies, laws, and regulations pertinent to their portfolio available on their respective ministry websites or Facebook pages.  Printed copies of the Belize Government Gazette contain proposed as well as enacted laws and regulations and are publicly available for a subscription fee.  Additionally, enacted laws are published free of cost on the website of the National Assembly or Parliament but there is a delay of a few weeks in updating the website.

Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable with regulatory decisions subject to judicial review.  The Office of the Ombudsman also may investigate allegations of official wrongdoing but has no legal authority to bring judicial charges.  Instead, its report is submitted to the affected Ministry.  There have been no regulatory systems including enforcement reforms announced in the last year.

Information on public finance, both the government’s budget and its debt obligations (including explicit and contingent liabilities) are widely accessible to the general public, with most documents available online.  The Auditor General’s report on government spending, however, is often years delayed.

International Regulatory Considerations

As a full member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Belize’s foreign, economic and trade policies vis-a-vis non-members are coordinated regionally.  The country’s import tariffs are largely defined by CARICOM’s Common External Tariff.  By virtue of its CARICOM membership, Belize is also a party to several treaties.  A primary example is the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between CARIFORUM and the European Union (EU).  The CARIFORUM countries include CARICOM members along with the Dominican Republic.  In the wake of Brexit, these countries also signed a CARIFORUM – United Kingdom Economic Partnership Agreement in March 2019.  The latter agreement is expected to come into effect by January 2021or soon after the UK leaves the EU.

Besides CARICOM, Belize is a member of the Central American Integration System (SICA) at a political level but is not a part of the Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration (SIECA) that supports economic integration with Central America.  Belize is also a member of the WTO and adheres to the organization’s agreements and reporting system.

The Belize Bureau of Standards (BBS) is the national standards body responsible for preparing, promoting and implementing standards for goods, services, and processes.  The BBS operates in accordance with the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality.  The BBS is also a member of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and Codex Alimentarius.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

The Belize Constitution is the supreme law and is founded on the principle of separation of powers with independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government.  As a former British colony, Belize follows the English Common Law legal system, which is based on established case law and precedent.  Of particular note, as a member of CARICOM, the highest appellate court of Belize is the Caribbean Court of Justice in Trinidad and Tobago.

Belize has a written Contract Act, supported by precedents from the national courts as well as from the wider English-speaking and Commonwealth case law.  Contracts are enforced through the courts.  There are specialized courts that deal with family related matters including divorce and child custody, but no specialized courts to deal with commercial disputes or cases.

The judicial system remains independent of the executive branch for the most part.  Case law exists where the judiciary has ruled against the government, and its judgements are respected and authoritative.  The highest appellate court exists outside of Belize at the Caribbean Court of Justice, providing a level of independence for the judiciary.  Notwithstanding, the current judicial system has some systemic problems – frequent adjournments, delays, and a backlog of cases caused by only a small number of judges and justices.

The government is implementing measures to improve the country’s judiciary.  The training of mediators and the introduction of court-connected mediation support alternative methods to dispute settlement.  General information relating to Belize’s judicial and legal system, including links to Belize’s Constitution, laws, and judicial decisions are available at the Judiciary of Belize website www.belizejudiciary.org .

Businesses and citizens may appeal regulations and enforcement actions.  Regulatory decisions are also subject to judicial review.  Judgments by the Belize Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are available at http://www.belizejudiciary.org .  The Caribbean Court of Justice is the final appellate court on both civil and criminal matters.  Judgments by the Caribbean Court of Justice are available at http://www.caribbeancourtofjustice.org .

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The country has an English Common Law legal system supplemented by local legislation and regulations.  The legal system does not generally discriminate against foreign investment and there are no restrictions to foreign ownership.  The laws stipulate that foreign investment can qualify for incentives; citizens have the right to private property; contracts are legally binding and enforceable, and regulations are subject to judicial review among other provisions favorable to foreign investment.

Major laws enacted or amended are generally available in the National Assembly’s website at www.nationalassembly.gov.bz .  For the previous year, these include:

  • International Business Companies Act
  • International Financial Services Commission Act
  • Retired Persons Incentives Act
  • Economic Substance Act
  • Customs Regulation Act
  • Tax Administration and Procedure Act
  • Income and Business Tax Act
  • Fiscal Incentives Act
  • Free Zones Act

There is no “one-stop-shop” website for investment and the laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements related to investors differ depending on the nature of the investment.  BELTRAIDE provides advisory services for foreign investors relating to procedures for doing business in Belize and incentives available to qualifying investors.  Further information is available at the BELTRAIDE website:  http://www.belizeinvest.org.bz 

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

Belize does not have any laws governing competition, but there are attempts to limit outside competition in certain industries (such as food and agriculture) by levying high import duties.

Expropriation and Compensation

The Government has used the right of eminent domain in several cases to appropriate private property, including land belonging to foreign investors.  There were no new expropriation cases in 2019. However, claimants in previous cases of expropriation assert that the Government failed to adhere to agreements entered into by a previous administration.  Belizean law requires that the government assess and compensate according to fair market value.  Expropriation cases can take several years to settle and there are a few cases where compensation is still pending.  Belize nationalized two companies in public-private partnership: Belize Electricity Limited and Belize Telemedia Limited.  These actions have each been challenged in the courts and largely resolved.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

The Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) was extended to Belize by an act of the United Kingdom when Belize was a colony.  After independence, Belize did not ratify the Convention nor is it listed as a contracting state.

The Arbitration Act governs arbitration and expressly incorporates three international conventions into domestic law.  These conventions include the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses; the Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards; and the New York Convention.  A 2013 Caribbean Court of Justice judgment also upheld the Arbitration Act giving effect to the New York Convention in domestic law.

The United Kingdom on behalf of Belize signed the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID convention) in 1965 and the country has not ratified it.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Belize is signatory to various investment agreements which make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes.  Belize is also a member of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, as well as a party to two regional Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA): 1) between CARIFORUM and the EU; and 2) CARIFORUM and the United Kingdom.  These regional arrangements make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes.

Since Belize is not a party to any Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) or Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, investment disputes involving U.S. persons are taken either before the courts or before international arbitration panels.

Over the past decade, the Government of Belize has been involved in approximately five to eight investment disputes with one involving a U.S. company.  Most cases were initially entered in arbitration panels, but were eventually appealed either before the U.S. District Court of Colombia or the CCJ.  Most of the judgments went against the Government, which has settled the majority and continues to settle other cases.

Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards against the government, but these are generally challenged up to the CCJ.  The Crown Proceedings (Amendment) Act and the Central Bank of Belize (International Immunities) Act were passed in 2017, affecting the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards against the government.  Essentially, the Crown Proceedings Amendment Act provides that should a foreign judgment be entered against the government, but a court in Belize later declares the judgement “unlawful, void or otherwise invalid”, the foreign judgment would be legally set aside.  The Act also provides for hefty penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, seeking to enforce the foreign judgment after being set aside.  The Central Bank (International Immunities) Act restates the immunity of the Central Bank of Belize assets “from legal proceedings in other states.”  This Act similarly provides for penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, which initiates any such proceedings.

There has not been a history of extrajudicial actions against foreign investors.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Belize’s Arbitration Act allows the Supreme Court of Belize to support and supervise dispute settlement between private parties through arbitration.  In 2013, the Supreme Court also introduced the process of court-connected mediation as an alternative method to dispute settlement between private parties and as a means of reducing costs and duration of litigation.

Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral, but these are generally challenged up to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Belize’s highest appellate court.

There are numerous instances of cases involving State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) which went before domestic courts with rulings both in favor and against the SOE.  Foreign businesses generally consider these rulings fair and impartial.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The Bankruptcy Act of Belize provides for bankruptcy filings.  The Act provides for the establishment of receivership, trustees, adjudication and seizures of the property of the bankrupt.  The court may order the arrest of the debtor as well as the seizure of assets and documents in the event the debtor may flee or avoid payment to creditors.  The Act also provides for imprisonment on conviction of certain specified offenses.  The Director of Public Prosecutions may also institute proceedings for offenses related to the bankruptcy proceedings.   Note that bankruptcy law in Belize generally outlines actions a creditor may take to recoup his losses.  There are bankruptcy protections, but generally not as comprehensive as U.S. bankruptcy law.

Belize ranked 135 of 190 economies in the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report.  The poor ranking was attributed to low depth of credit information, the lack of a credit bureau and of a collateral registry as well as problems related to payment of debts in situations of bankruptcy.  According to this report, a receivership proceeding takes at least two years until the creditor is repaid all or part of the money owed and has a cost of 22.5 percent of the debt.  Additionally, the insolvency procedure does not have a good framework to commence operations, to manage debtor´s assets, and to involve creditors in the reorganization proceedings, among others.

10. Political and Security Environment    

Belize has traditionally enjoyed one of the most stable political environments in the region, having held peaceful and transparent democratic elections since independence on September 21, 1981.  In general elections, the two major political parties usually trade leadership but the current United Democratic Party has held power since 2008 spanning three consecutive elections.  At the municipal level, elections were held in March 2018 and while the opposition People’s United Party gained ground, the ruling United Democratic Party maintained its majority in six of the nine municipalities.  The two parties are not strongly divergent in policy, being viewed largely as center-left and center-right, with party affiliation largely following family and place of origin.

Incidents including damage to projects or installations affecting investments in Belize are rare.  In November 2014, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and American Sugar Refineries (ASR) failed to reach a contract agreement before the harvesting season.  While the dispute was eventually resolved, there were some reports of fields being burned and farmers being threatened for breaking ranks with BSCFA.

Neighboring Guatemala’s long-standing territorial claim on Belize that has persisted for almost two centuries has caused international political insecurity.  The Organization of American States facilitated a special agreement in 2008, whereby both countries agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in their respective countries to vote on whether to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  After simultaneous referenda failed to materialize in 2013, Guatemala and Belize held separate referenda in April 2018 and in May 2019, respectively, agreeing to refer the dispute to the ICJ.  Despite efforts to increase confidence building measures between the two countries, incursions by Guatemalan citizens along bordering areas continue, resulting in deforestation, illegal logging and extraction of exotic hardwoods, illegal harvesting of xate palm leaves (a decorative plant used in floral arrangements), panning for gold, wildlife poaching, and agriculture development.  These activities have resulted in confrontations between Guatemalan nationals and Belize law enforcement authorities on Belizean territory.  Tensions have also flared along the Sarstoon River, which forms the disputed southern border.  In the last three years, Guatemala has increased its naval presence in the area and detained or questioned Belizean citizens wishing to navigate the river.

The second major security concern is the high level of crime countrywide.  Some incidents are gang related while others are random targets against innocent civilians and tourists.  While Belize has an unusually high murder rate per capita, violent crime has not historically targeted American citizens or businesses.

Turf and local gang-related crimes are often concentrated in south side Belize City.  Nonetheless, Belize is seeing a nationwide emergence of MS-13, likely a result of gang members fleeing El Salvador.  Although a small presence at this time, these gang members easily integrate into established El Salvadorian communities in Belize resulting in sporadic violence.  Gang-related criminal activities increase the burden on an already stressed and under-resourced police force.

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