26 March 2008

Father of the Modern-Day British Virgin Islands Commemorated

On March 3, the people of the British Virgin Islands commemorated the birthday of the late Honorable H. Lavity Stoutt. A parade was held in his honor and a program conducted in Palm Grove Park where prominent speakers memorialized the life and work of the territory’s first elected chief minister who is affectionately remembered as the “father of the country.” It was a well-deserved tribute for this highly-respected leader who presided over the modernization of the British Virgin Islands as we have come to know it today.

H. Lavity Stoutt was born in 1929 in Tortola and attended the Zion Hill Methodist Church, and later the Senior School which became the Virgin Islands Secondary School, and later the BVI High School. He later studied house and boat building, and began a career in wholesale and retail business. He served his community as superintendent in the West End Society of the Methodist School. He married Hilda Smith of Carrot Bay in 1956 with whom together he had six children. Mr. Stoutt began his political career when he was appointed to the Executive Council as a Minister of Works and Communications following the general elections of 1960 and 1963. In 1966 he participated in the constitutional conference in London which advocated for a full ministerial system to be extended to the territory. He led the newly-formed BVI United Party into the 1967 elections and became the territory’s first Chief Minister. He would give some 38 years of unbroken service to the people of the British Virgin Islands before his death in 1995, having served five times as chief minister He was the longest serving parliamentarian in the Caribbean.

H. Lavity Stoutt’s entry into elected politics marked the acceleration of the development process of the territory. Over the following ten years active community groups successfully advocated for community control of Wickham’s Cay and prime land on the island of Anegada for the use and development of the people. Legislative measures crucial to the future development of the territory were also adopted including ordinances creating the Tourist Board, Immigration and Passport laws, Caribbean Development Bank membership, Land Surveyor laws, a Scholarship Trust Fund the creation of the Development Bank of the Virgin Islands and the Labor Code among other measures.
By 1976, a new constitution was enacted for the territory which increased the number of constituencies to nine, abolished nominated membership, and removed certain responsibilities from the British-appointed governor to the elected chief minister. The post 1976 period saw an unprecedented rate of economic growth in the British Virgin Islands with the emergence of a dual pillar economy of tourism and the international financial sector. This advancement was largely attributed to the vision of H. Lavity Stoutt who was also a staunch advocate of regional cooperation. The territory joined ther Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States during his tenure.

He also recognized the importance of developing formal relations with the U.S. Virgin Islands. Chief Minister Stoutt and US Virgin Islands Governor Alexander A. Farrelly forged a close bond through which a dynamic intergovernmental relationship was formed with the signing of the first formal agreement between the two elected governments creating the Inter Virgin Islands Conference in 1990. This new organization was designed as a mechanism for cooperation between government agencies in the respective territories. Emerging from this agreement were the beginnings of sustained cooperation in law enforcement, natural resources management, inter-island transportation, cultural preservation and a host of other areas of collaboration. This agreement set the stage for future cooperation between the elected governments of the two territories. Chief Minister Stoutt and Governor Farrelly shared the view that the political evolution of the two territories warranted the development of such cooperation between the elected leadership, even as there were those in both territories who felt that such intergovernmental relations should only take place on their behalf between London and Washington. These two leaders stood firm, and won the backing of Washington and London for their initiative.

Chief Minister Stoutt was also a proponent for increased self-government and devolution of power from Britain, and spoke regularly on the need for a true partnership between London and the British dependent territories to correct the political imbalances. Speaking before the British Virgin Islands Legislative Assembly in October 1992, Stoutt questioned the British assertion at the time that the financial services sector would not be sustainable because of the need for possible restrictions. On the contrary, new laws aimed to facilitate transparency and due diligence in the financial sector were enacted enabling the British Virgin Islands to become a model for financial services worldwide.

Chief Minister Stoutt was a staunch advocate of constitutional advancement for the British Virgin Islands. In a 1993 address to the people of the territory, he pointed that in 1967 the budget of the territory was still subsidized by London, and “as a result of our good stewardship” the territory no longer received grant-in-aid from the British by 1979. He emphasized that this was done within the framework of the shift of government financial control to an elected minister. He asserted that there would be “no turning back” to the days when the elected government would have no control over its financial management, and not the “slightest consideration” should be given to any other reduction of the powers of the elected government.

He was clear in his vision that the British Virgin Islands should be granted full internal self-government and ultimately independence. Subsequently, when unilateral changes in 1994 were made from London creating four new ‘at-large’ electoral seats in addition to the nine district seats - without the opportunity for a debate in the local Legislative Council - Stoutt denounced the action as “a plot to derail” him, according to the obituary published in the Independent of London upon his death. As a consummate politician, however, he maneuvered this adversity to his advantage, and his party won all four of the at-large seats in the 1995 election. He later announced that “the people have had their say and their voice had been heard.”

British Virgin Islands Deputy Governor Elton Georges who worked with Chief Minister Stoutt from the 1980s until his death once wrote that H. Lavity Stoutt was a “dynamic, visionary leader who believed in creating ever-expanding opportunities for the people of the territory to be prosperous.” One of these opportunities was the idea of the creation of a institution of tertiary education, even as others were not in favor. As it turned out, the Community College which now bears his name has become an exemplary institution of higher learning recognised world wide. Quite appropriately, its choir performed at the commemoration at Palm Grove Park in honor of the life, dedication and commitment of this Virgin Islands stalwart who Deputy Governor Georges so aptly described as having a “dominant and unshakeable” place in British Virgin Islands history.

11 March 2008

Thoughts on Dependencies, Enclaves and Territorial Claims

In the classic 1982 work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” the great West Indian thinker Dr. Walter Rodney examined the ramifications of Europe’s creation of artificial boundaries in Africa which contradicted the historical reality of the time. Had the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) not accepted the European-drawn borders after independence, perhaps many of the subsequent disputes between neighboring countries would not have arisen. This same strategy of colonial demarcation used in Africa was also responsible for the carving up of island groups in the Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere. Such divisions were usually made irrespective of the local population, and often resulted in rather unusual political configurations. The northeastern Caribbean is one such example.

On the island of Sint Maarten, one side is part of the Netherlands Antilles which is an associated country of the Netherlands Kingdom (comprised of Holland, Netherlands Antilles and Aruba). The islands of Saba and St. Eustatius (part of the Netherlands Antilles) are closest to St. Maarten, and together with the more distant Curacao and Bonaire form the five-island Netherlands Antilles (which itself will fragment into five parts by the end of 2008). The other side of the island is French St. Martin which was historically governed by the French overseas department of Guadeloupe until it won separate commune status from Paris in 2007. St. Martin can now deal directly with France. Thus, we have one island with two countries, two different official languages, with separate currencies and nationalities.

Since the elected governments of the two sides of the island are not at equal political level, functional cooperation on cross-border issues is not an exact science. The elected leaders, to their credit, have established joint arrangements so they can coordinate what would otherwise be routine functional activities, if the countries were independent. If this scenario were not sufficiently complex, add to the mix the nearby island of Anguilla, a British dependent territory with its own governance structure, separate currency and official language (with and hourly ferry boat service to and from French St. Martin, weather permitting). The combined population of the three countries is under 100,000 with family ties between and among the three countries commonplace – as Europe underdeveloped Africa, so it apparently did to the Caribbean, as well.

This fragmentation of island peoples is also illustrated in the present division between the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands. This configuration emerged from centuries of alternating control exercised by the British, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, French and even the Knights of Malta (among others). Ultimately the British ended up with one set of Virgins, and the Americans with the other set. In this case, the two territories use the same currency and have the same official language. The elected governments on both sides of their aquatic border (best identifiable via global positioning system) initiated discussions in the early 1990s on formal cooperation, including political confederation. No lasting alternative was achieved to the current political division between the two dependencies. They exist today under separate systems of government and differing perspectives on political evolution characterised by systematically increasing autonomy on the one side versus a drift towards partial integration with the US on the other side. Former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Sir James Mitchell once remarked that “the safety of the haven of mediocrity is a foolish illusion.”
The British Virgin Islands and US Virgin Islands did enter into a bilateral cooperation agreement in 1990, updated by predecessor governments in 2004, designed to regularise official contacts on obvious issues of mutual interest. The sustainability of such arrangements is always questionable, and in the political vacuum, bilateral differences continue to reoccur unnecessarily.

Similar curious island divisions can be seen in the Pacific region. The Independent State of Samoa and American Samoa, for example, are comprised of people of the same culture and language, but which have been divided into one independent state and one dependent territory. The division between the US dependencies of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands is also of note given that the Chamorro people are native to both territories and comprise a single culture. But even as these two are neighboring US dependencies, their respective governance arrangements are markedly different. Guam is appropriately on the United Nation list of non self-governing territories while the Marianas maintains an internationally accepted autonomous status. Perhaps there may be a convergence of these dependency models in future, as the process of reversing the Marianas autonomy accelerates through unilateral US Congressional action designed to remove immigration control from Marianas jurisdiction, and the judicial determination to take away the territory’s ownership of its submerged land which it thought it had owned. Legislation to review the whole political arrangement amidst these new interpretations has been introduced in the Marianas legislative body.

Variations on this theme abound. They include the anachronistic remnants of ‘empire’ where 18th and 19th century economic exploitation (sugar, bananas, spices, enslaved and indentured people) has given way to 21st century strategic positioning for control over natural resources – particular energy resources - that can now be better exploited through new technologies. Thus, the United Kingdom insists on its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas even as its claim belies geography and demography, but is consistent with the contemporary colonial cartography. A war was even fought with Argentina in support of this claim. After all, an exclusive economic zone is at stake.

Spain maintains the Autonomous Community of the Canarie Islands off the coast of Morocco (much to their chagrin). Ownership of oil and gas deposits have been continuously contested in these waters. Morocco itself lays claim to Western Sahara, where a referendum process has been put on hold in favour of United Nations-sponsored negotiations between Morocco and the Frente Polisario. U.N. reports indicate that these discussions have resulted only in a “restatement of position” of the two parties. Serbia, in regards to Kosovo, can shed some light on what happens when negotiations result in such “restatements of position” – especially when energy resources are involved. Will there be a similarly imposed solution in Sahara without consensus of the Security Council?

There’s more. Despite United Nations resolutions to the contrary, the UK leased the Indian Ocean island of Chagos (Diego Garcia) to the US for use as a military base – even as the island is historically a part of Mauritius. The native population was tricked/forced/intimidated into boarding boats to leave their homeland, ostensibly for medical purposes, and then prohibited from returning. Even as the UK courts have sided with the right of the Chagos people to return, the ruling continues to be appealed by the British. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali may have been right that “the desired results (in international affairs) are often achieved by stealth.”

In the South China Sea, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim the Spratly Islands for strategic reasons as well as for the control of natural resources in that area. There are many other examples across the globe too numerous to describe in this present space. But a close examination of the world map would reveal a striking number of rocks, islets, cays and the like in the oceans and seas around the globe, with the telltale bracketed abbreviations of the names of the countries which have laid claim.

As the polar ice caps continue to melt at an ever-accelerating rate from the effects of climate change as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, new areas of territorial conquest are already beginning to emerge to ensure control over more of these resources to burn more fossil fuels. Thus, a new frontier has opened from the South Atlantic to Antarctica where the UK has used its sovereignty claim on Falklands/Malvinas as the basis for its argument to control large areas of Antarctica. Other seafaring developed states are also making territorial claims in that area.

As the water levels rise, what of the present islands which may quickly be inundated by the oceans and seas? Will claims be made to the resulting submerged land which was once above water? As Steele Pulse thoughtfully observed, “in these times of science and technology, the world is an unconscious lavatory.”

01 March 2008

United Nations Study Completed on Assistance to Overseas Territories

The Caribbean Subregional Headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has completed a comprehensive study on the role of the wider United Nations system in assisting the development process of non-independent countries. Most of these countries are associate members of ECLAC and of its counterpart U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), two of the five U.N. regional commissions worldwide.

The 71 page study complete with extensive citations was carried out by Dr. Carlyle G. Corbin, former Minister of State for External Affairs of the U.S. Virgin Islands who is a past chairman of the ECLAC Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC), and was the founding chairman of its Working Group of Associate Member Countries. He is presently an international advisor on democratic governance.

An abstract of the study, and the complete document can be downloaded from the publications webpage of the ECLAC Port of Spain website. Check the 2007 publications. www.eclac.cl/portofspain

An earlier 2004 ECLAC study conducted by the same author on the participation of non-independent countries in the United Nations world conferences and summits of the United Nations General Assembly is also available at the same website under the 2004 publications.