25 November 2008

Comparative Dependent Systems in the British and US Virgin Islands

The following comparative analysis of the neighboring British and U.S. Virgin Islands was written by political historian Dr. Carlos Lopez de Otero, and is made available to Overseas Territories Review, with kind permission.

The people of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and US Virgin Islands (USVI) have been connected by ancestral ties over many generations. Yet, as in the case where Europe “under-developed” Africa through the creation of artificial geographical borders cutting across these historical ties, individual islands comprising these two colonial territories were claimed by numerous European and other developed countries. In the process, a single people was divided into two separate jurisdictions, and evolved under different laws and governance structures.

The subsequent application of respective British and North American political systems in the two territories has resulted in incremental colonial reforms, but not in a process of self-determination and requisite decolonisation. Perhaps, this was never the intent. Thus, neither territory has yet achieved a full measure of self-government through one of the internationally recognised political options of independence, free association or integration.

Historical Evolution

British Virgin Islands

The first permanent European settlement in what is now known as the British Virgin Islands (BVI) was established in 1648 by the Dutch. By 1666, British planters took control, attaining the status of British colony for the islands, and by 1672, the British Governor of the Leeward Islands annexed Tortola (the main island) to the British Crown. (This was the same year that the Kingdom of Denmark laid claim to St. Thomas which would emerge as a major mercantile centre and free port of the later Danish West Indies, and after 1917, the US Virgin Islands).

In 1773, the planters in the British Virgin Islands were granted civil government, coinciding with the introduction of large scale importation of enslaved Africans for forced labour in the planting and harvesting of sugar and cotton. Following the decline and collapse of the sugar industry, and after the end of slavery in the 1830s, the British Virgin Islands became administratively a part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands by 1872. The islands became a separate British colony again in 1956 when the Leewards Islands Federation was dissolved. Unlike the other islands of the Leewards Federation, the BVI was not made a part of the subsequent West Indies Federation. The Territory is presently governed through a constitution which, under the British colonial system, is written by the United Kingdom Government.

US Virgin Islands

Barely three miles across the Caribbean Sea on the same archipelago is the other part of the Greater Virgin Islands, comprised of St. Thomas and St. John, and the largest island of St. Croix 40 miles south. In the 1630's, Dutch, British and French settlements were established on St. Croix, and by 1650 the French won official control of that island until 1733. In 1672, Denmark established a permanent settlement on St. Thomas, and another on St. John in 1717.

In 1733, Denmark bought St. Croix from the French, thus unifying the three. For 251 years, the Danish West Indies, in particular St. Croix and St. John, was developed primarily for the cultivation of sugar, as chattel slavery was introduced in order to service the plantation economy. St. Thomas became a key Caribbean port for transshipment between Europe and the Americas. On St. Croix and St. John, sugar plantations flourished until the mid-1800’’s, but slaves rebelled in 1848. By the late 1800’s the United States became interested in purchasing the islands, and bought them from Denmark in 1917 for US $25 million in gold to develop a naval base against the German threat to Panama Canal Zone shipping. As the BVI, the USVI is similarly governed by an “organic act” which, under the US colonial system, is written by the United States Government.

Governance and Power Arrangements

Consistent with contemporary colonial arrangements, both the BVI and USVI are administered through similar systems which project the appearance of democratic governance, but which lack full self-government. A comparison of the systems is useful.

British Virgin Islands

The United Nations classification for the BVI is that of a “non self-governing territory.” The present constitution reflects the ministerial system of government, and makes provision for a British governor, appointed by the Queen of England, who enjoys reserved powers in the areas of defence, internal security, external affairs, public service, the administration of the courts and other areas of jurisdiction. The Governor also maintains the power to issue an “Order in Council” which can annul any legislation adopted by the elected Legislative Council, led by the elected Chief Minister.

A Virgin Islands Constitutional Order 1976 as amended from the original version of the original 1967 constitution was in force until 2006. This provided that the Legislative Council approve and adopt the budget, and approve legislation necessary to the operation of the territory. However, all legislation had to be assented to by the Governor, who also operates as Chair of the Executive Council.

A constitutional review was conducted by the UK in 1993 with recommendations on internal adjustments of the present arrangement. It also called for a report on the costs and obligations of independence. The 1999 British White Paper on Partnership for Peace and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories provided for the first time the opportunity for the British dependent territories themselves to review the constitutions that governed them, and to make recommendations. Before the White Paper, constitutional reviews were conducted by a United Kingdom – appointed body. The BVI Government formed a constitutional review committee in 2004 in order to examine possible constitutional reforms. It was clear, however, that the constitutional review process would only address the internal mechanisms of government, and any suggestion on limitation of the powers of the British-appointed Governor would not be entertained by the administering power.

US Virgin Islands

As in the case of the BVI, the US Virgin Islands is classified by the United Nations as “non self-governing.” In the words of a 1987 US Court decision, the territory “does not exist by virtue of a constitution, (but rather),by legislative grace of Congress.” Accordingly, the US Congress first issued an Organic Act in 1936 to serve in lieu of a constitution, and this was amended in 1954 with focus on reforming the internal structures of government. This Act clearly indicates the politically subordinate position of the territory vis a vis the administering power.

Modifications to the governance of the territory proceeded in an ad hoc manner through US (federal) legislation in the form of amendments to the Revised Organic Act of 1954, as well as unilateral application or withholding of US laws to the territory. There existed a US-appointed governor until the enactment by the US Congress of the Elective Governor’s Act of 1968 which provided for the election of a native Governor in 1970. The territory had made four attempts to draft locally-written constitutions, dating back to 1964, to replace the Revised Organic Act. Several of the drafts contained provisions designed to alter the power imbalance which exists in favor of the administering power. The drafts were either dis-approved by the administering power, or were rejected in referendum, in part because of the retention of the authority of the administering power to unilaterally modify any draft constitution prior to its enactment by the people in referendum. The people of the USVI decided in a 1982 referendum to determine the political status before writing a constitution.

Two political status commissions and one select committee of the territory’s 15-member legislature began programmes of education at varying times from 1984 to 1993 to inform the people of the political options with the aim of conducting a referendum on political status choices. The most recent commission which convened in 1988 held the first and only political status referendum in 1993, resulting in a vote on seven options grouped into three categories. Confusion caused by the excessive number of options, coupled with issues of who should be eligible to vote, and substantial mis-information in the public domain, resulted in organised boycotts by several groups. The resultant 27.4 per cent participation of the electorate was far less than the 50 per cent threshold, and result was declared null and void.

A territorial law to convene a constitutional convention was adopted in 2006, and the Fifth Constitutional Convention convened in 2008 with the aim of drafting a local constitution which would be submitted through the elected governor to the U.S. Congress where amendments can be made unilaterally. When the Congress finishes with the document, it is then sent back to the territory where a referendum would be conducted. Consistent with this approach, this would address only the internal governance of the territory and not the political status.

The Decolonisation Process

Both the BVI and USVI were placed on the United Nations list of non self-governing territories by the United Kingdom and United States, respectively, pursuant to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 66-1 of 1946. Both remain as two of the 16 territories on the present list. The territories are reviewed by the United Nations under Chapter 11 of the UN Charter through its Special Committee on Decolonisation. As such, the General Assembly adopts annual resolutions in promotion of the political, socio-economic and constitutional development of all of the territories, including the BVI and USVI, in order to facilitate an orderly process of self-determination leading to their decolonisation.

The United Nations General Assembly at the end of 2007 adopted a series of resolutions designed to facilitate the decolonisation process in the territories. Of particular note were provisions of the resolutions which reaffirmed that self-determination is a fundamental human right of the people of these territories as recognised under human rights conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other provisions reiterated the importance of political education programmes to heighten the awareness of the people of their legitimate options of political equality as clearly defined in General Resolution 1541 (XV), namely independence, free association and integration.

The resolutions have had limited specific reference to the specific situation in the BVI, but in the case of the USVI, the resolution have called for a number of actions to be taken. These include support for USVI participation in CARICOM, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The resolution also called for the inclusion of the USVI in UN technical programmes, and the return of natural resources to the territory which had been unilaterally taken by the administering power.

Resolutions have also called for all 16 of the territories to be given access to programmes and activities of the wider UN system, including the Economic and Social Council.

External Affairs

Both the BVI and USVI participate to varying degrees in UN and other international organisations, either through full or associate membership, or observer status. This is done through a form of delegation of authority from the cosmopolitan country to the territory. Within this framework, the BVI and USVI joined the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) in 1984, and the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee the following year. The USVI served as chairman of the CDCC in 1988, and again in 2005 and was the founding chair of the Working Group of Associate Member Countries. The USVI, unlike the BVI, routinely presented its views on its development process to the UN Decolonisation Committee between 1975 and 2006.

On the whole, however, the BVI participates in regional and international organisations at a significantly greater level than the USVI. This may be due to the perception by the UK that the BVI is a separate country, whilst the USVI and other US territories are erroneously characterised as “ part of the US.” Thus, the BVI is an associate member of CARICOM, OECS and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Meanwhile, the US in the 1990s rejected requests for the USVI to seek a similar status in the OECS and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), whilst it has kept “under review” the USVI request for observer status in CARICOM for over a decade. The fact that consensus resolutions of the UN General Assembly have repeatedly supported the participation by the USVI in these organisations is clear illustration of the selectivity of implementation of UN resolutions.


An important response to these prevailing political conditions in both territories has been a collaborative effort at functional cooperation. In 1990, the elected governments of both territories entered into an agreement creating the Inter Virgin Islands Conference as a mechanism to cooperate on a range of economic, social and political issues, including a working group on constitutional development. A second agreement signed in 2004 by the respective elected heads of government formalised the earlier conference format to a more permanent Inter Virgin Islands Council (IVIC) with a similar standing committee on political and constitutional issues. The sustainability of these initiatives, however, has proven inconsistent.

All things considered, it may be the cooperation at the functional level that will benefit these two respective territories as they develop politically and constitutionally. To this end, a proposal tabled in the Inter Virgin Islands Conference in 1994 to establish a Confederation of the Greater Virgin Islands was considered as the ultimate step in functional cooperation, but following changes of government on the USVI side and the untimely death of the head of government on the BVI side, the proposal did not get sufficient consideration. Such a proposal bears renewed consideration in an era of globalisation.