On April 29th, a report by British judge Gary Hickenbottom on the current status of the British Virgin Islands’ government announced findings of corruption involving millions of dollars of state funds spent without proper process, dishonest sales of public property, and abuse of appointments. Governor-General of the British Virgin Islands John Rankin ordered the report in 2021 in order to investigate the “corruption, abuse of office, and other serious dishonesty” that occurred in the governance of the territory. Given its findings, the report recommended a suspension of the Virgin Islands’ constitution and the dissolution of the House of Assembly, as well as the transfer of governing authority to the Governor-General for two years.
The inquiry’s release coincides with Premier Andrew Fahie’s recent arrest in Miami on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to import cocaine. Fahie was allegedly attempting to negotiate a deal that would have allowed the use of British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.) ports to ship cocaine into the U.S.
Regarding the Virgin Islands’ governance, Rankin claimed that Britain “owes them an obligation to protect them from such abuses and assist them to achieve their aspirations for self-government as a modern democratic state.” Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling stated that she spoke to community and religious leaders on the islands about the impacts of corruption and emphasized the need for “significant changes.”
While the decision about whether the U.K. government will directly rule the B.V.I. has not yet been made, the potential for direct rule has sparked protest and condemnation. Activists protested against the proposal outside the Governor-General’s office, and retired Virgin Islands politician Luce Hodge-Smith declared, “Our message to the United Kingdom government and to the world: there will be no direct rule in this land.”
The Organization of East Caribbean States issued a statement warning against the move, stating, “It is ill-advised to impose direct colonial rule and the history of such imposition in the Caribbean has never delivered the desired result.” The Virgin Islands’ government, led by Acting Premier Natalio Wheatley, rejects the plan for direct rule and instead proposes an interim unity government, which would include members of the National Democratic and Progressive Virgin Islands Movement parties and would remain in place until new elections in February 2023.
This contention displays the issue intrinsic to democratic states’ attempts to assert their control over overseas territories. These states proclaim democracy as an end goal, yet intervene against democracy in their territories when they deem it justified, creating a mirage of sovereignty where territories are allowed to govern themselves until the mother country decides otherwise. This issue is not restricted to British territories, but also includes territories across the world controlled by the U.S., France, and others.
The assumption behind the advocacy for British direct rule is that British governance will be more effective than local authorities’. The evidence underpinning this argument seems clear: Fahie’s arrest and the high level of government corruption, especially compared to the British government’s 93 out of 100 score on Freedom House’s Global Freedom rankings, make direct rule seem like an obvious choice. It is possible that the British government would rule the Virgin Islands better than local, democratically elected rulers. However, this possibility seems slim when considering the historical realties of colonial rule.
The B.V.I. were first settled by Europeans in 1648 when the Dutch established a permanent settlement on the island of Tortola. The English captured the island in 1672 and annexed the islands of Anegada and Virgin Gorda, with the remaining Virgin Islands falling under Danish control until they were sold to the U.S. in 1917. The 1967 constitution granted the British Virgin Islands a ministerial government, and more autonomy and a legislative council were established in 1977 and 1994 changes. In 2002, the British Overseas Territory Act granted British citizenship to the Virgin Islands’ population, and a new constitution ratified in 2007 established a larger degree of self-government. This combination, self-rule of local affairs with British control of military and foreign affairs, is what would be temporarily dismantled if Britain implements direct rule.
Without delving too deeply into the atrocities colonial governments did and do commit against their subjects, it should be acknowledged that this type of government has less incentive to represent its colonial subjects than a democratic one does. This is because a non-representative government cannot be voted out and thus faces no repercussions for enacting policies that do not benefit the people it serves. Britain, and Governor-General Rankin, may contend that it is focused on the Virgin Islanders’ best interests, but it is unlikely that British rule would be any better at securing them than a locally representative democracy. This becomes clear when analyzing two issues featured in the report and substantial to the Virgin Islands’ society: drug trafficking and the regulations surrounding corporations.
Since November 2020, the Hickenbottom report found, “the Royal Virgin Islands police force has recovered over 3.6 tons of cocaine, with an estimated street value higher than the annual B.V.I. GDP. It is thought that huge quantities of drugs pass through the BVI undetected.” The Virgin Islands have historically maintained a similar stance to drug use as the U.K., banning the recreational use of drugs such as cocaine and marijuana. It therefore follows that a British government would most likely implement policies similar to those that have already been tried and currently exist in Britain. The proposed coalition government, meanwhile, could fight trafficking by legalizing the recreational use of certain drugs, which would dismantle the cartels’ power and likely reduce drug flow through the Virgin Islands. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in the United States, according to David J. Bier of the Cato Institute, where state-level efforts to legalize marijuana reduced marijuana smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. It would be unlikely for a governor-general, whose job is to maintain stability during a transitional government, to implement this controversial policy.
Regarding corporate regulations, according to The Guardian, Britain intends to adopt a public registry of beneficial ownership of shares on the islands. This policy, which brings transparency to the ownership of corporations, was adopted in the U.K. in 2016. While the policy could help fight corruption, a public registry would likely drive many companies from the islands due to a desire to keep their ownership private, negatively impacting the B.V.I.’s reputation as a tax haven and disincentivizing corporate investment in the islands’ banks. The Virgin Islands rely on this investment, with nearly 55% of the total government budget provided through fees on financial services. Corporate flight would slash the government budget, and would also reduce the islands’ standard of living due to lower wages and less ability to take out loans. A registry of companies that have attained funds through the government would be sufficient to address corruption while also protecting the privacy of the rest of the islands’ corporations.
Direct rule by the U.K. would therefore not be as effective as allowing the Virgin Islands’ government to root out its own corruption. Instead of suspending the constitution, Britain should permit the Virgin Islands to hold a constitutional convention under the leadership of elected delegates, giving the Virgin Islanders a voice in the new policies they will be living under.
The direct rule proposal reveals the issue surrounding overseas sovereignty. These territories are constantly at the mercy of the mother country’s whims – even if said mother country preaches self-determination and democracy. To secure their democratic rights, these modern colonies should pursue one of two options. The first option is hold independence referendums, giving the populace a chance to express their desire for self-rule. The second option is to advocate for an arrangement similar to that between France and French Guiana, which allows French Guiana to be represented in France’s National Assembly and Senate. Territories that pursue these changes will face pushback from their mother countries. However, they are necessary to abandon colonial status and maintain self-rule.
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