25 August 2009

Re-Colonising the Colony

Direct British Rule in the Turks & Caicos Islands

The international community is coming to grips with the “colonial coup d’ état” perpetuated by the United Kingdom in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), one of six British-administered colonies in the Atlantic/ Caribbean. The United Kingdom Order in Council, issued in March and brought into force in August, suspends parts of the constitution of the territory for two years. But what is being termed a ‘partial suspension’ actually abolishes the Cabinet and House of Assembly, as well as trial by jury, and transfers a range of other areas of authority to the UK Government through its un-elected governor who now has unbridled power to govern at will. There is hardly anything left of substance that has not been “suspended.”

The introduction of an advisory council to ‘advise’ the British governor hardly serves as a substitute for democratic governance, since the governor does not have to accept the advice. Still, some seek to project this scenario as a palatable and necessary alternative. Ironically, the very fact that constitutional order can be abolished in this manner by reverting to one-man, unelected rule should thoroughly negate any suggestion by colonial apologists and accommodationists that the territories should be considered self-governing, and therefore removed from the United Nations list of non self-governing territories.

The key lesson to be learned in all of this, perhaps, lies in the broader picture. Colonial governance, even by delegation of authority to an elected legislature, remains colonialism nevertheless. Thus, the evolution of elected government in a dependency can always be reversed – for whatever reason - as evidenced by what has taken place in the TCI, even as alleged financial transgressions are just cause for scrutiny. The point to be made is that elected dependency governance still provides for the overriding authority of an administering power acting through its un-elected governor to disallow any legislation adopted by the elected legislative body. This only serves to confirm the colonial nature of the arrangement. The veto power of the un-elected Governor renders the dependency political arrangement anything but democratic, and the removal of the governance structures in the Turks and Caicos, e.g. House of Assembly, Cabinet, etc. simply exposes the colonial arrangement for all to witness.

The reaction to these events has been steady. Following the announcement of the order in council last March, former Premier Michael Misick expressed that “it is wrong in the 21st Century to have an entire population re-colonised in this fashion…” and called on “both political parties to put all political differences aside and come together to protect the rights, interest and aspirations of all of our people.” Apparently, the opposition didn’t support this approach, and continued to blame the ruling party for the political crisis. A government of national unity could have been a constitutional way out. Misick made the point that the people’s right to self-determination under international law were being violated, and waged a battle in the UK High Court of Justice on this point citing the European Convention on Human Rights which the UK has made applicable to the TCI. The UK subsequently informed the High Court that it would soon issue a reservation to the Convention removing its applicability to the TCI. Amazing. (They can do that? wow… and they call it a democracy?) The matter may well end up in the European Court of Human Rights, or another international human rights review body.

Misick’s successor Premier Galmo Williams also called for political unity between the two political parties, but was also rebuffed by the opposition. His Cockburn Town Declaration on ongoing and proposed initiatives to address the issues raised in the Report of the UK Commission of Inquiry (funded from the TCI treasury) was subsequently rejected by the UK. Williams later explained the ongoing crisis to the United Nations Caribbean Regional Seminar on Decolonisation which convened in St. Kitts in May where he announced his call for new elections, and where he asked the UN to continue monitor the situation. Shortly thereafter, Williams formally requested the British governor to dissolve the House of Assembly pursuant to the constitution, and set new elections for October. In the swiftest of replies, the Governor summarily rejected the Premier’s request to resolve the issues through democratic means. On the eve of the suspension of elected government, Williams observed that the action “puts (the UK) on the wrong side of history…and was not done because it was the right thing to do nor because it was necessary, but rather it is being taken because they are able to do such things in a country of our size and status.”

International Response

Response to the action from Caribbean leaders and the regional media was immediate. The Jamaica Gleaner in a March editorial opined that the “overthrow” of the TCI constitution “represents the most regressive constitutional action by the British in the Caribbean since their 1968 intervention in Anguilla…” The Stabroek News of Guyana in an August editorial following the takeover commented that the UK “should have consulted with CARICOM governments on ways acceptable, not simply to the British and North Atlantic governments, but also to the citizens and governments of the region itself…” For its part, the Economist of London published an August article on the issue under the headline “A Very British Coup.”

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham of The Bahamas, a close neighbor of the TCI, proposed in a session of his country’s parliament that separate Caribbean country representations be made to the British Government.” The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in a statement last March expressed concern that the proposed actions “threaten(ed) the democratic process in the TCI…in effect, thwarting the will of the people.” The March CARICOM statement went on to emphasise that “…good governance, the rule of law and representative democracy can(not) be ensured or strengthened by constitutional suspension in the TCI and a return to direct rule by the colonial power through its governor.” Following the coup, CARICOM issued a second statement in August expressing that “the imposition of direct rule by the Governor is a regrettable forced step backwards,” and that “it would have been far more beneficial, and the results more sustainable, to involve the people of the territory through their elected representatives, in the efforts required to strengthen the good governance and public administrative processes of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is the stated ultimate goal of the British Government.”

Some Caribbean scholars have suggested an immediate suspension of the territory’s associate membership in CARICOM until democracy is restored, a la the suspension of Honduras from the Organisation of American States following the suspension of democracy in that country. Such a move would be in the best interest of the territory, as well as CARICOM, since the spectre of a representative of the un-elected ‘government’ in the TCI seeking entry into meetings of the CARICOM ministerial council should be actively avoided.

Meanwhile, former Bahamian Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell took the tack that “Britain as the colonial power in the Turks and Caicos Islands has the responsibility not only for the economic development and well being of the territory, but also its political development,” and that the situation “speaks not only to the failure of the internal mechanisms of governance, but also to failures on the part of the colonial power.” He noted that even the UK itself had recently seen a crisis in governance as a result of corruption, but this did not require the suspension of democracy.

Response from other UK-administered territories was also forthcoming. Chief Minister Lowell Lewis of Montserrat said that the TCI “did not deserve to have their democratic rights suspended.” Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown was the first to comment on the initial order in council last March expressing deep disappointment with the situation. Bermuda Senator C. Walton Brown most recently described the UK action as “clearly excessive,” and a huge overreaction which has taken away the democratic rights of the TCI.

Emerging United Nations Response

All of this places the United Nations in an interesting position, especially given the adoption on 30th June by the United Nations General Assembly of a unanimous resolution on the “Situation in Honduras: democracy in breakdown.” The resolution expressed “grave concern” for the “breakdown in the constitutional and democratic order and the legitimate exercise of power in Honduras.” The resolution went on to “condemn the coup d’état in the Republic of Honduras that has interrupted the democratic and constitutional order of the legitimate exercise of power…,” and demand(ed) the immediate and unconstitutional restoration of the legitimate and constitutional government…and of the legally constituted authority…”

It was always understood that these principles of democratic governance are supposed to apply to non self-governing territories that do not exercise sovereignty, as well as to sovereign countries. In fact, such principles are even more critical to those territories which ‘govern’ only on the basis of a reversible delegation of power from an administering authority thousands of miles away. Whether there will be a UN resolution on the suspension of democracy in the TCI at the 64th Session of the General Assembly in September similar to the resolution on Honduras remains to be seen. Yet, the Ministerial Meeting of the Non Aligned Movement Coordinating Bureau at its 2009 meeting in Havana last April provided the clearest position on the matter in calling for “the urgent restoration of the constitutional government in the TCI.” Shall we expect a draft resolution introduced by NAM to the General Assembly in September calling for constitutional restoration in the TCI?

Thus far, the United Nations has had several opportunities to make their views known on the political crisis in the TCI - a territory squarely under its purview. Thus far, however, the silence has been deafening, leaving the UK with a politically free hand to act with impunity. In the meantime, the emerging political crisis in the TCI has saddened advocates of contemporary decolonisation for the remaining non self-governing including Bermuda, Cayman Islands, the British and United States Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Anguilla in the Caribbean; along with Guam, American Samoa and New Caledonia in the Pacific. All exist under similar democratically deficient arrangements as the Turks and Caicos Islands, and are all subject to the same unilateral authority by an “administering power.”

At the 2009 UN Regional Seminar in St. Kitts and Nevis last May, TCI Premier Williams took great pains to explain the crisis and the proposed remedies of his elected government. Yet, the final report of the session made no mention of the crisis in the territory nor the position of the elected Premier. One month later in June, the Special Committee on Decolonisation apparently entertained the inclusion of language in its resolution on the TCI which referred to the UK decision to replace the democratic process, the position of the Premier as expressed in the Caribbean regional seminar of the same committee, and the positions of CARICOM and the Non Aligned Movement, while ultimately calling for the reversal of the decision to abolish the territorial government. This would, of course, have reflected the objective reality in a territory where the promotion of self-government is supposed toi be the primary role of the UN committee. However, the proposed language was not included in the resolution, and what remained was a mere restatement of previous resolutions on the TCI – as if nothing was going on there (amazing).

The UK, thus, had sufficient ‘political cover’ to act in the manner it did knowing that the UN response from the Decolonisation Committee would be weak. Decades ago, the announcement of the impending suspension of constitutional order in a non self-governing under the watchful eyes of the Decolonisation Committee would have elicited an immediate emergency meeting of the Committee with a strong resolution on the issue. In the present day, what is seen is a form of reverse decolonisation via committee efforts to prevent such a proactive approach whilst seeking to legitimise colonialism and remove the territories from UN review. No wonder only one territory has achieved self-government over the last several decades. Perhaps it is left to the General Assembly to speak loudly on the issue given the cautious timidity of its Decolonisation Committee. The 64th Session could be most interesting on this matter, but only if the governments make the issue a priority.

United Nations Charter
Chapter XI:
Declaration regarding Non Self-Governing Territories

Article 73:

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognise the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:


b. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Entered into force: 23 March 1976

Part I, Article 1.

1. All peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.