29 April 2008

Indigenous Pacific Expresses Views on Decolonisation

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) was established by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 2000 to address a range of concerns affecting indigenous peoples in economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights. The Seventh Session of the Permanent Forum convened from 21st April to 2nd May 2008 at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

A half-day session on Issues Related to Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific was held on 23rd April which focused on a number of themes including climate change and the Pacific, migration, urbanization, development and human rights. A comprehensive paper was presented by Ms. Mililani B. Trask, Director of the Indigenous World Association, on behalf of a coalition of Pacific and Caribbean indigenous organisations. The presentation addressed the present crisis stemming from the lack of implementation by the United Nations of its international obligations in decolonising the remaining non self-governing territories.

It is to be recalled that the U.N. General Assembly by Resolution 62/118 of 17 December 2007 for the third consecutive year:

“Request(ed) the Special Committee to collaborate with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, within the framework of their respective mandates, with the aim of exchanging information on developments in those Non-Self-Governing Territories which are reviewed by those bodies.”
No action on this resolution has thus far been taken. OTR has consistently observed, with much regret, the lack of implementation of the U.N. mandate on decolonisation. We are therefore pleased to reprint the collective views of the Pacific indigenous community, supported by organisations in the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, in the May, 2008 edition of our publication Overseas Territories Review OTR. Copies are available by contacting the editors at overseasreview@yahoo.com .

27 April 2008

St. Croix’s Contribution to Athletic Excellence

For fans of American basketball, the beginning of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff competition among the leading professional teams is a very special time. Only basketball at the Olympic Games is equal in significance, if not in excitement. For those of us who have played the game at the collegiate or international levels, the playoffs reinvigorate often dormant feelings associated with “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the human drama of athletic competition,” as coined by the legendary television broadcaster Chris Schenkel who we used to watch on the week - old tapes of “Wide World of Sports” television programme. The tapes had to be shipped to the territory for airing, before there was cable and satellite television.

Of the many professional players who began the 2007-08 NBA season, it is remarkable that two players from the island of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands form part of two of these elite playoff teams – Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs and Raja Bell of the Phoenix Suns. What are the odds that one, let alone two, world class athletes would emerge from a small Caribbean island of 50,000 people? Duncan is considered by the experts as one of the top players ever to play at the professional level. His level of play is almost effortless, and his near-perfection of the fundamentals of the game is un-paralleled. For his part, Bell has emerged as one of the premier defenders in the league, and a prolific long distance shooter outside the three-point line (At this writing, he already has 21 points at halftime!).

Both young men are articulate and intense, and represent the people of the Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean with great distinction. They make all Crucians especially proud! It is too bad that their two teams are meeting in the first round of the playoffs where one will be eliminated.

As the 2008 in Beijing rapidly approach, would it not have been a delight to see both of these athletes joining other Virgin Islands athletes on the US Virgin Islands National Team this summer? “Sports autonomy” provides for non self-governing territories to field their own Olympic teams without regard for the political dependency status of these territories. As a result, the US Virgin Islands basketball team has always been quite competitive on the international level, in such competitions as the Central American and Caribbean Games, and the Pan American Games, among others. The team draws its players from the many Virgin Islands student-athletes competing at the collegiate level in a number of US universities. Some have later competed professionally in Europe and elsewhere. Olympic residency rules, however, appear to restrict the participation of Duncan on the territory’s team, and he plays for the US team instead. Bell has participated on Virgin Islands international teams over the years. So, we may never witness the real Virgin Islands basketball team in Olympic competition. Too bad.

It is interesting, though, that the NBA properly recognizes the international nature of the US Virgin Islands in correctly classifying these two Crucians as forming part of the international contingent of professional basketball players of the NBA. Accordingly, the US Virgin Islands flag is flown with the other flags representing the league’s “international players.” This is but another example of the international dimension of the US Virgin Islands as a non self-governing territory under international law where the ultimate political status of the territory remains unresolved. It has taken basketball to bring this objective reality to the forefront once again.

16 April 2008

Reflections on a Caribbean Leader

Monday, April 7 was the birthday of the second elected governor Cyril Emanuel King who passed away while in office in January of 1978. King’s distinguished career was chronicled in the excellent publication “Profiles of Outstanding Virgin Islanders,” and is required reading for those interested in Virgin Islands history. King graduated with a bachelor's degree in public administration from American University in 1951. He had been appointed in 1949 as an assistant to U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, and was the first person of African descent to serve in the office of a U.S. senator.

King was later appointed in 1957 by the Organic Act Committee of the Virgin Islands as its deputy in Washington, D.C. to organize the lobbying effort in the U.S. Congress to gain amendments to the Virgin Islands Organic Act. In 1971, President John F. Kennedy appointed him Virgin Islands Government Secretary which was similar to the present Secretary of State position in Puerto Rico, and forerunner of the post of Lieutenant Governor in the US Virgin Islands. He was elected to the US Virgin Islands Legislature in 1972, and was subsequently elected governor for a four-year term in 1974. He served three years of what was to become his only term.

As a young writer and advisor on international affairs to Governor King, I was honored to have had the opportunity to work for this most formidable leader whose dynamism, charisma and persistence dominated the political landscape of the day. Working for Governor King trained me in how to perform under pressure. In later years when I would address various United Nations organizations on behalf of the government, I would call on that discipline he instilled to successfully deal with the challenges of representing the territory in the international arena. Without a doubt, Governor King was a most formidable boss who commanded excellence of those who worked for him. In turn, we gained valuable experience which would serve us well later in our careers.

Of the many experiences I had in working under Governor King, one particular instance remains vivid. It was an early September morning in 1977, around 6:30 AM or so, when my phone rang in my residence in Scott Free, St. Thomas. I had only recently relocated from St. Croix to write for the governor. On the other line was Governor King who was calling to inform me that I was to meet him in St. Croix that morning. I could heard the loud roar of the Antilles Airboat engines in the background. “Meet me in St. Croix,” Governor King said, “and don’t be late.”

I didn’t know which event he was attending in St. Croix. All I knew was that I was to meet him there – on time. Quickly showering and dressing, I leaped out the front door, briefcase in hand, into my Volkswagen bug, drove quickly through the narrow Scott Free Road and down Crown Mountain Road. I made the sharp left turn onto the highway towards town, to see if I could get on the next airboat to St. Croix. Luckily there was an available seat (or someone was bumped, I can’t remember which), and I was shortly on my way to St. Croix. I now had to find out where Governor King was going – and I couldn’t be late. As luck would have it, Education Commissioner Gwendolyn Kean was on the same flight and she advised me that the governor was scheduled to speak to an assembly of new teachers that morning. I caught a ride with Commissioner Kean and St. Croix District Superintendent Gloria Canegata who were both officiating at the event.

After twenty minutes, we were pulling into the courtyard of an elementary school at mid-island where the event was taking place. Just ahead, I could see the taillights of Governor King’s official black Buick Electra pulling up to the curb. The Governor emerged momentarily from the car and headed towards the foyer of the school. I thanked Mrs. Kean and Mrs. Canegata for the ride, jumped from the car, and headed towards the school.

Governor King had been quickly surrounded by teachers and administrators who he took the time to patiently greet before he delivered his remarks. He had a certain presence which drew people around him. Even as he would silently enter a room from the rear, people would seem to sense that he was there, and instinctively turn around. As he stood in the center of this group of educators, he glanced around the room and spotted me nearby with my legal pad in hand taking notes. He gave me a quick nod in recognition that I arrived – and that I wasn’t late. Had I not been there, he may not have asked me to accompany him on the next “mission.”

It was my job at such events to draft the press release for the Governor’s outstanding Press Secretary Richie Allen for review and delivery to the media. I also had to get the names of the people who were photographed with the Governor. These complimentary pictures would be proudly displayed in many Virgin Islands homes. The Governor’s expert photographer, Leland Bertrand, was quite prolific in the number of pictures he would take of Virgin Islanders of all persuasions, and we had some interesting times linking the pictures with the names on my legal pad.

Governor King always had time for people, and he was famous for his impromptu stops along the roadside to talk to construction workers, sanitation workers, businesspersons, students and just about everyone else. Quite unexpectedly, he would walk out of Government House with his administrator Levron (Pops) Saraw and head down the hill to Main Street to hear the concerns and ideas of the people. He especially had a lot of time for the youth and often stopped to watch young people play baseball and other sports in the various athletic leagues around the territory.

Governor King was also an avid regionalist, and developed close relations with his counterpart Premier Robert Bradshaw of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla during the first two years of his term. He always recognized the progressive role of nationals of the Eastern Caribbean in the economic development of the US Virgin Islands. King became the first governor of the territory to make an official visit to the region, traveling to St. Kitts on several occasions. He also welcomed Premier Bradshaw on official visits to the territory. He was the first to participate in a meeting of CARICOM when he attended the Second Conference of the Heads of Government held in Basseterre, St. Kitts in December of 1975. Serious issues on the status of CARICOM nationals residing in the US Virgin Islands were addressed at that meeting.

He was also the first governor to speak before the United Nations on the evolution of the constitutional status of the US Virgin Islands. This 1975 speech served as the precedent for the participation of successive governments in the United Nations review process of the constitutional development of the territory. By 2008, the territory still exists pursuant to a federal “Organic Act” in lieu of a local constitution – never mind, addressing the deficiencies in the prevailing political status of an unincorporated territory. As early as 1975, Governor recognised the prevailing situation as an anachronism.

Governor King’s policies promoted innovation, implementation, self-help and the necessary political autonomy for the territory to engage the wider Caribbean and the world. He was clearly ahead of his time. His perspectives are largely unknown to later generations. Efforts should be made to heighten public awareness of the philosophies and opinions of this important leader in Virgin Islands and Caribbean history.

07 April 2008

International Dimension of a USVI Constitution

The United States Virgin Islands, as a U.S. - administered unincorporated territory in the Caribbean has embarked on its Fifth Constitutional Convention to draft a local constitution to replace the Revised Organic Act of 1954 which is a federal law that serves in lieu of a constitution. The Revised Act updated the original Organic Act of 1936. The system of governance under which the territory exists is underpinned by the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution which provides in Article 3 that the US Congress “shall make all needful rules for territory or other property of the United States,” and thus may legislate for the territories it administers.

Other US - administered territories in the Caribbean and Pacific regions have addressed their constitutional advancement to varying degrees. Puerto Rico drafted a constitution in 1952 based on a commonwealth political status which, in effect, maintained the applicability of the Territorial Clause. The Northern Mariana Islands in 1976 approved a significantly more autonomous commonwealth arrangement and adopted a constitution based on that status. The territory of Guam adopted by referendum a similar autonomous commonwealth arrangement to its neighboring Marianas, but the proposal was not accepted by the US Congress during a process which took up much of the decade of the 1990s. Thus, Guam also is organized via an organic act. American Samoa completed its constitution in 1960, providing for the retention of many local customs and governance structures. An American Samoa political status commission in 2007 has made certain recommendations regarding the present arrangement.

Since the enactment of the US Virgin Islands Revised Organic Act of 1954, constitutional advancement has been attained through ad hoc Congressional legislation, which included in 1968 the authority to replace the US-appointed governor with an elected governor, among other incremental changes. In 1971, one year after the election of the first governor, a constitutional convention was authorized, without regard to US Congressional authorization, with a draft constitution adopted in 1972. The document was not adopted in a local referendum, however, because of a less than required voter turn-out.

In 1976, Congress adopted legislation authorizing the Territory to draft its own constitution recognizing the sovereignty of the United States over the islands. A constitutional convention was elected the following year, and in 1979 the draft constitution emanating from the convention was rejected in referendum. A subsequent convention in 1980 also produced a document which failed to be adopted by referendum in 1981.

Several years prior, in 1979, the US President Jimmy Carter had completed a policy review of the governance of the US territories conducted by an Inter-Agency Territorial Policy Review Task Force chaired by the US Department of Interior which maintains administrative oversight of the US – administered territories. One of the conclusions of the policy review was the authorization for the territories to make recommendations or modifications to the prevailing political status. Federal impetus to this process, however, did not materialize as a result of the 1980 US presidential elections which resulted in the change of US government administration from President Carter to President Ronald Reagan.
Nevertheless, the territorial government proceeded to establish its first political status commission in 1980, consistent with the Carter Administration authorization, to study potential changes to the existing political status arrangement with the aim “to negotiate the relationship of the (US) Virgin Islands…and to provide for popular ratification of a territorial-federal relationship.” The local legislation authorizing the first US Virgin Islands Status Commission made an important distinction between the 1976 federal law authorizing the creation of constitutional conventions which were limited to the prevailing political status arrangement, and the Carter Administration policy recommendations authorizing the territories to address the broader picture of political status modernization.

This first Status Commission existed until 1982, and produced important recommendations, several of which were adopted by the territorial government at that time। Although the public education phase of its work was not completed, the Commission did raise the consciousness of the electorate of that period as to the distinction and inter-relationship between the constitution and the political status processes.

Accordingly, during the 1982 general election, the electorate decided in a non-binding referendum issue that the status issue should be addressed before writing a constitution. For procedural reasons, however, legislation to convene a fifth constitutional convention was introduced instead, and despite recommendations to reduce the original cost of the convention, the Legislature did not adopt the measure.

In 1983, a number of alternative mechanisms were considered to address the political status issue. By 1984, the Fifteenth Legislature of the US Virgin Islands created a Select Committee on Status and Federal Relations which also contributed to the growing body of work on political evolution. The subsequent legislature did not re-establish the Select Committee, however. By 1988, legislation was adopted to create a broader Commission on Status and Federal Relations which added significantly to the body of work already done by the previous two bodies. A referendum on political status options was held in 1993 following an extensive public education campaign, but failed to garner the necessary fifty percent of the registered voters. The territory, therefore reverted to the status quo political status, by default.

No legislation was adopted addressing either the political status or local constitution issues in the intervening period, until 2004 when a bill was adopted to create a Fifth Constitutional Convention with the aim of a 2006 referendum on a draft document. This was later amended to give more time for the process to take shape. The present process requires that a draft constitution would be adopted by two-thirds vote of the thirty delegates of the Convention. The President of the Convention would then submit the draft to the Governor of the US Virgin Islands, who would, in turn, within ten (10) days submit the document to the President of the United States of America.

The President would have sixty (60) calendar days to review the document, with substantive input from the relevant U.S. federal departments, in particular Interior and Justice, before transmitting it to the Congress of the United States which would have a period of sixty (60) legislative days for its review. Hearings on the draft would most probably be held in committees of the US House of Representatives and the Senate where representatives of the Constitutional Convention would introduce the draft and answer any queries which may arise. It is also possible that other selected individuals could make their views known to the Congress during the hearings. After the congressional review period, and any amendments which may be made to the text by the Congress, the draft document would be returned to the US Virgin Islands for submission to the voters in a referendum.

In the course of the public sessions of the Fifth Constitutional Convention, a presentation was made on the International Dimension of a US Virgin Islands Constitution by Dr. Carlyle Corbin, international advisor on governance and former US Virgin Islands Minister of State for External Affairs. The presentation examined the relevant international treaties and agreements relating to the constitutional development of the territory, as well as relevant resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly. The presentation also covered a number of human rights treaties in relation to the drafting by the Convention of its bill of rights. Of particular note was reference to the Treaty of Cession which transferred the islands from Danish to US jurisdiction in 1917, particularly as related to the disposition of the inhabitants of the islands at the transfer. The paper goes on to review specific language included in previous draft constitutions of the US Virgin Islands which remain relevant to the present exercise. The paper goes on to examine specific competencies contained in the constitutions of American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico which might be useful in the contemporary US Virgin Islands process. The presentation also makes reference to key provisions of the new constitution which went into force in the British Virgin Islands in 2007, specifically as related to cultural and national identity. The presentation concludes with the important distinction between the drafting of a constitution based on the prevailing dependency status, and the process of self-determination which provides non-territorial options of political equality.

The text of the presentation is available upon request from Overseas Territories Review at: overseasreview@yahoo.com.