30 October 2009

The Virgin Islands and the United Nations – What’s the Connection?



26 OCTOBER 2009

As President of the United Nations Association of the Virgin Islands, I welcome you to this, our first event on St. Croix, the largest and most populous of the Virgin Islands.

I regret that I cannot be with you in person, but I have chosen a jury today in the Superior Court on St. Thomas for a criminal trial which begins first thing tomorrow morning.

An appreciation of the relationship between the United Nations and the U.S. Virgin Islands, indeed, the very fact that there is such a relationship, is something that can be very helpful as we confront the circumstances and problems of our social, economic and political life. 

This relationship comes from a number of sources. One source is the Constitution of the United States: Article 6 lists treaties made under the authority of the United States as included in the “supreme Law of the Land” and the United States is a party to several relevant treaties, including the United Nations Charter itself, and the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

A second set of sources are the UN Charter and the Declaration themselves, together with certain resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the UN pursuant to its Charter. And then there are principles of international law, which deal with the relationships among nations and between nations and other entities, such as non-self-governing territories or, as they used to be called, colonies. The United States has identified these Virgin Islands as such a non-self-governing territory which is subject to the principles of international law.

I mention these technical matters to show that the relationship between the UN and the US Virgin Islands is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of law and of fact. Because it is a matter of law and of fact, information about it needs to be more widely known and its implications more clearly understood.

The identity of the US Virgin Islands as a non-self-governing territory has implications for, among other things, the writing of a constitution for the territory, a thorough analysis of the Diageo contract, the Virgin Islands Park system, support for the preservation and strengthening of Virgin Islands culture, and the limited manner in which these Virgin Islands are allowed to participate in various programs by the U.S. Congress.

But perhaps the most important reason why this information needs to be widely known and understood is for the impact that it is likely to have on the outlook and vision of the people of these Virgin Islands. In this regard, I have asked UNAVI’s Secretary General, Dr. Corbin, to make available copies of a presentation which I made as part of a panel organized by the V.I. Humanities Council in 2005, which speaks to issues of political consciousness, identity and self-esteem.

Once again, I welcome you to what I hope to be only the first of the contributions of UNAVI to increased knowledge and discussion on these topics on St. Croix.






In 1916, the Afro-Caribbean inhabitants of the Danish West Indies were not citizens of Denmark; they were subjects of the Danish Crown. When the USA purchased the islands in 1917, neither of the parties involved, which of course did not include these inhabitants, saw any reason to clarify their status.

The treaty of cession simply said that Congress would determine their status and civil rights, without stipulating when that would occur. Interestingly enough, although the treaty provided that Danish citizens residing in the islands who did not elect to preserve their Danish citizenship would become citizens of the USA, the executive branch of the USA government held that such persons became non-citizen U.S. nationals, and not citizens.

The question that I expect has leapt into many minds is - what in the world is a non-citizen US national? Either you are a citizen or you are an alien, right? Actually, no; that is not correct.

Colonial powers seldom gave their colonized populations a status equal to that of their home populations, and as of 1899, when the USA took ownership of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain, it had become a colonial power. In modern monarchies, the distinction is often made as between citizens and subjects; in non-monarchical states, such as democracies.

The distinction is most often stated as citizens as opposed to non-citizen nationals. Both citizens and non-citizen nationals owe allegiance to the country which has sovereignty over them, but a citizen is entitled to full civil rights and a non-citizen national is not.

This was important in the first ten years of US ownership of the US Virgin Islands. Although persons born in a territory under US sovereignty had previously obtained US citizenship at birth, persons who were born in the US Virgin Islands of parents who were non-citizen nationals of the USA, did not obtain citizenship by birth; their status was restricted to that of their parents.

All of that changed in 1927, when federal law in essence made US citizens of all US Virgin Islanders who were US non-citizen nationals. However, that citizenship was akin to naturalization, in that it was a status awarded by law and not one acquired as of right. That citizenship became effective by law on 5 February 1927 and could have been eliminated by law for persons born after such a revocation. It was not until the Nationality Act of 1940 that persons born in the US Virgin Islands became US citizens at birth in the same way as persons born in the U.S. itself.

The Nationality Act accomplished this by defining the United States to include Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but only for the purposes of nationality; it did not "incorporate" either territory into the US. In fact six years later, in 1946, the USA placed both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands on the UN list of non-self-governing territories - the list of colonies.


From the mid-1800s, after the sugar economy bottomed out and its economic heyday as a Danish colony had passed, the Danish West Indies became anxious to be associated with the rising economic power of the hemisphere - the United States of America. The USA was interested, but two possible sales had already fallen through when the possible German threat to the Panama Canal in what came to be known as World War 1 clinched the deal.

The impetus for the acquisition on the part of the US was military and economic, the fact that the territory was inhabited was an asset only in that it meant that labor was available if needed. The fact that the territory was not considered to be a future part of the US is clearly shown in the treaty provisions that both left it outside of the U.S. customs zone and exempted it from the Jones Act requirement that only US ships can carry passengers or freight between U.S. ports. With respect to these laws, the ports of the US Virgin Islands are not considered to be US ports.

Given the history and current status of the relationship between the USA and the USVI, the angst exhibited by many over the differences in the US treatment of the USVI and of its 50 constituent states is entirely misplaced. In my view, the analysis of those who decry the disparities is generally faulty:

Either they assume that the US Virgin Islands is a part of the USA, which it is not in either domestic or international law, or they mistake rights obtained through residence in one of the 50 states as rights of national citizenship,or they make both the false assumption and the mistake.


Probably because it began at an earlier time and developed within a monarchy, British colonial policy made the distinction between what we now call the Administering Power and the Non-Self Governing Territory (NSGT) clearer.

The population of its colonies did not become British citizens until quite recently and even then, their citizenship has never been the same as that of those born in the UK. There was never confusion concerning the differing status of those British citizens who settled in the colonies and their descendants on one hand and the people of the territory on the other. Those who lived outside of their country, expatriates, were different both from the people of the place in which they lived and the people of their own homeland and they did not expect to be equated with either.

At present, the people of most NSGTs other than the USVI see their identity as separate from that of their administering power. As Anguilla and Bermuda, to use current examples, debate how to exercise their right to self determination, they are actively evaluating what their options are and what each option will mean to their communities before they make a decision. 

Only then will they undertake definitive actions to accomplish a change. Unfortunately, what we hear in the US Virgin Islands are efforts to accomplish a change to political integration, such as obtaining the presidential vote, being treated as a state with respect to benefit programs, etc., without having a clear analysis of what our present status entitles us to and the overall effect of such political changes.

As a Non-Self Governing Territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands has an identity and status separate from the USA. As the administering power of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the USA has certain responsibilities to the territory and its people. These responsibilities include the promotion of the social and economic development and the preservation of the cultural identity of the territory.

These responsibilities are designed to encourage the elimination of dependency, which is as much a state of mind as an external condition, and to develop self reliance, which arises from a sense of self worth. With this in mind,

• Rather than justifications for the takeover of USVI park land and territorial waters on the grounds that the territory does not have the means to adequately protect and care for it, why don’t we hear demands that the administering power provide the education, training and resources to build the necessary capacity?

• Instead of allowing the territory to keep only those revenues which US law requires and doling out limited funds from programs designed for its constituent states, why doesn’t the administering power identify all of the sources of revenue derived from the territory, work in partnership with the territory and international agencies to identify the development needs of the territory as its own entity, and provide, at a minimum, the identified funds, together with appropriate education, training, expertise and additional funds that the territory may not be able to get from elsewhere.

• As it has acknowledged that it has international law obligations toward the territory, why doesn’t the USA discontinue the outdated and essentially deceitful method of dealing with the territory through the Interior Department and eliminate the ineffectual oddity of a territorial Delegate to Congress, and establish Congressional and Presidential offices to deal with territorial officials on a basis of mutual respect? 

The granting of US citizenship to the residents of the USVI in the same manner as obtained by residents of the USA proper has not only caused confusion in the legal and political spheres. Perhaps more important is the damage that it has done to the psyche of many Virgin Islanders. Am I the only person that finds it odd that the news of the country that insists in so many ways that the USVI is “unincorporated” i.e., not a part of it, is referred to in the territorial media as our “national” or “domestic” news?

Does anyone else find it anomalous that the Virgin Islands government demanded that the territory participate in the draft for the armed services of the USA in World War II, and then cites the past and continuing sacrifices of its young men, and now women, to “prove” the dedication of the territory to a country which insists on holding it at arms length while refusing to provide the information and resources needed for the territory to make an informed choice as to its future?

Why is it that past or present problems are considered proof that truly effective government by Virgin Islanders is impossible without the oversight of the US government when it is universally recognized that one’s true character is shown when you have to stand on your own, knowing that you will bear the consequences of your actions, a situation which no USVI government has faced since the late 1950s?

And why is there no outcry, not even a smattering of concern, about the fact that, although the USVI is a discrete entity, a Non-Self Governing Territory with its own Olympic teams, its own delegations to World conferences, and its own international identity, there is no legal status of U.S. Virgin Islands citizen?

It appears to have been implicitly believed, at least since US economy leapt into high gear in the middle of the last century, that the problems of the US Virgin Islands, which initially were seen as entirely economic, could be resolved by becoming a part of the American Prometheus which brought prosperity, comfort and happiness to all. There does not seem to have been a widespread recognition of the downside of the workings of that economic engine and the culture it spawns, of the positive value of many aspects of the Virgin Islands Caribbean culture, or of the dislocations likely to ensue when those two forces met in the limited theatre of these islands.

In 88 years, the Afro-Caribbean people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have traveled a road from an undefined status in a territory under the sovereignty of the USA to citizenship in a country which maintains that territory in a condition of uncertainty and instability. It is time to stop reacting to immediate difficulties as if they were ultimate issues, to look at the world as a whole, to analyze and evaluate the true range of possibilities for the USVI within that wider context, to make an informed choice, and to act on that choice with the dignity of a people sure of their identity and of their inherent worth.

I thank you for your attention.

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