11 April 2012

United Nations Address of U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Cyril E. King - 1975

April 7th marked the birthday of Cyril Emanuel King, the second elected governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands who passed away while in office in January of 1978. Governor King was a strong advocate for the political and constitutional development of the Caribbean territory. In 1975, he was the first governor to officially engage the relevant United Nations (U.N.) decolonisation process by addressing the U.N. Decolonisation Committee on the pathways to political status evolution for the  U.S. Virgin Islands and other non-independent Caribbean countries. As Governor, he received the first and only Visiting Mission of the United Nations Decolonisation Committee which held extensive hearings throughout the territory in 1977, and which published an extensive report on the conditions in the territory at that time.  This marked the beginning of a period of sustained official Virgin Islands engagement in the United Nations Decolonisation process pursuant to Article 73 of the U.N. Charter which guarantees the right to self-determination for the various dependencies of the world. The territory's participation in this international decolonisation process would continue under a number of Governor King's successors.

OTR is pleased to publish (below) the 1975 address to the United Nations of the late Governor King. 

[Also see: Reflections on the late Cyril E. King, second elected Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands ]



Address of 

   The Honorable Cyril E. King 

      Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands 
 Subcommittee II 

Special Committee on Decolonization 

May 1, 1975 

Actual Delivery

Mr. Chairman and members of this distinguished Subcommittee,

I consider it a privilege and an honor to accord this Committee a general and candid assessment of the legal-constitutional relationship between the (U.S.) Virgin Islands and the United States. With your kind indulgence, I will attempt to trace the course of political evolution in the Virgin Islands since their accession to the United States in 1917, outline the advances made towards self-government, and express our hopes and desires for the future. 

In considering the question of political evolution, I believe it is important to distinguish from the very outset between two levels of change or development. On one level, for example, the growth of self-government in the Virgin Islands has entailed the progressive diminution of metropolitan control and/or interference over essentially internal matters, and the corresponding expansion in the decision-making authority of the islands with the overall political determination remaining under metropolitan control.

On another level, this evolution has involved changes in the domestic status quo, in the nature of internal political participation, and in the development and inter­-relationship of democratic political institutions. By stressing the interdependence without ignoring the differences between these levels of change, the growth of self- government can be more clearly seen as involving basic changes in both the competence and character of insular decision­-making. 

If colonialism can be defined as a power relationship of outright domination, then it would not be difficult to classify the Virgin Islands – the former Danish West Indies - as a colony prior to their acquisition by the United States in 1917. 

The centralized, external locus of decision- making, the internal predominance of an "expatriate governing class,” and the restricted nature of political participation were some of the main features of the Danish system as exemplified in the Colonial Laws of 1863 and 1906, respectively. Authority and responsibility were withheld from local institutions in the determination of internal affairs. 

Briefly, the Danish arrangement, in common with those prevailing in most of the Caribbean at that time, was characterized internally by the predominance of an appointed bureaucracy under the supervision of the Danish Cabinet--and more immediately, under the (Danish) Crown appointed governor. 

This pyramid was staffed largely by imported officials holding the type of powers a democratic society only entrusts to elected representatives. At its apex stood the appointed governor responsible for his actions only to the metropolis. Local control and local accountability were almost entirely absent. The insular Legislature or Council played a subordinate role, was sharply circumscribed in competence, and was unrepresentative in composition as a result of restrictive franchise laws. The character of political participation thus completed the typical colonial equation. On one level, ultimate authority lay with the metropolitan government. On another level, local political power, however delimited, was confined to a small minority of property owners. 

The purchase of the Danish West Indies by the United States in 1917 did not signal the immediate advent of self-government significant devolution of political power. Decision-making authority was essentially shifted from one metropolis to another. A 1917 act of Congress with respect to the islands enjoined the creation of a "temporary government" under presidential supervision and subject to the plenary power of Congress. 

This temporary arrangement built upon the appointive powers of the United States President and successively administered by the military and the U.S. Interior Department persisted for some two decades. 

The islands enjoyed the constitutional status of an ‘unincorporated, unorganized territory’ composed of non-citizen "nationals." The net effect of the transfer at this point was, in the words of one historian, "an odd, combination of American sovereignty and Danish institutions, with the minor modification of a changed nomenclature to conform to American usage." 

The absence of significant change during these initial decades did not imply complete immobility, however. Important changes in the relationship of the Virgin Islands to the United States over this period included: 

a) the extension of citizenship to most of the indigenous population; 

b) the ending of military rule by executive decree; 

c) the appointment of the first civilian governor in 1931.

A major re-assessment finally came with the passage of the 1936 and 1954 Organic Acts. These (U.S.) Congressional enactments attempted to define with some measure of particularity the legal nature of the relationship between the United States and the Virgin Islands. In common with most such changes in the Eastern Caribbean they were the consequence of a complex interaction of growing local discontent and metropolitan policy review. 

Organic legislation for the Virgin Islands entailed important changes in the relationship established by the 1917 Act of Congress. It supplanted major aspects of the retained Danish colonial laws, replaced the earlier "temporary arrangement" with a more permanent and carefully defined structure, extended various provisions of the United States Bill of Rights, and clarified the constitutional status of the islands by officially designating them as an unincorpated, "organized" territory of the United States, albeit remaining under the territorial clause of the United States constitution. It delegated greater authority to the insular system in the conduct of its own affairs and strengthened its fiscal resources by creating a special "economic relationship. " 

In reaffirming the principle of civilian supremacy, organic legislation reorganized internal political institutions. It  separated "governmental powers" into three branches and provided rules for their interaction in conformity with the doctrines of "shared power" and "checks and balances." Of major importance to the character of island politics were those provisions broadening the franchise to "democratize" the internal political process. 

More specifically, the 1936 and 1954 Organic Acts furnished the basis of the present unicameral Legislature of the Virgin Islands. In terms of structure, the 1936 Act replaced the Colonial Councils the joint session of which comprised the Legislative Assembly with inter­-island jurisdiction. Ineffective and unproductive in practice, the latter was abolished by the 1954 Act which merged the municipal councils to form the present day fifteen-member Legislature. Regarding the question of composition, the 1936 Organic Act provided for the popular election of all legislators by a greatly expanded electorate. 

The competence and scope of insular decision-making was also amplified. The Legislature was strengthened both vis a vis the appointed governor and the federal government. 

The 1936 Act, for instance, specifically stated that: 

"the legislative authority of the Virgin Islands shall extend to all subjects of local application not inconsistent with this act or laws of the United States made applicable to said islands…"

Empowered to determine the salaries and qualifications of` its members, the Legislature also received a clarification of taxation powers and jurisdiction over various properties formerly under federal control. It was further authorized by the 1954 Organic Act to issue revenue- bonds for public improvements and conduct hearings related to executive performance. More importantly, it was provided with improved fiscal resources by the "economic" sections of these Acts. These sections diverted income and other taxes to the Virgin Islands treasury, thereby eliminating the continuous dependence on emergency U.S. Congressional appropriations. 

It has been said that the present power of the Virgin Islands Legislature is equal to that of the several U.S. states. It has the authority to raise taxes; to authorize expenditures; to approve the governor’s nominees to his cabinet, to independent boards, agencies and commissions; and to the judges of the inferior court. It approves the territory’s annual budget both for operating expenses and capital improvements. It has the right and power to reapportion itself consistent with the constitutional restraints of due process and equal protection. It has the authority to, and has by law provided, the procedure for filling vacancies among its membership. It has sole power to appropriate money. 

The judicial and administrative structures were no less affected. A separate judiciary was created, even as the higher court of which was placed under the supervision of the United States Attorney General. 

The insular bureaucracy was re-organized--especially by the 1954 Organic Act--and recruitment policies were revised. The 1936 Act specifically stipulated that the U.S. Secretary of Interior "give due consideration to natives of the Virgin Islands" in selecting top-echelon personnel; and the 1954 Act provided that the appointed "Governor “Governor shall give preference to qualified residents of the Virgin Islands" in making some appointments. These recruitment changes, of course, were especially important in that they set the stage for the indigenization of the insular bureaucracy, a major feature of the decolonization process in most of the Caribbean. 

Although these organic acts did not provide for an elected governor, nor eliminate the supervisory role of the U.S. Department of Interior, nor remove a number of other controls, they nevertheless symbolized a radical reassessment by the United States of its relationship with the Virgin Islands, and greatly expanded the parameters of local autonomy and self-government. 

In a sense, the perennial issue of political status in Virgin Islands politics was more refocused than defused by the 1936 and 1954 organic acts. In the early 1960’s, a Constitutional Convention was organized for the purpose of drafting a new Organic Act for the Islands. The central issues then, however, were those of the control of the executive, and representation in the United States. The resulting document included such demands as: 

1) the abolition of the presidential veto on local legislation; 

2) the popular election of the governor and lieutenant 

(3) the local appointment of the comptroller; 

4) the removal of controls from the matching fund; 

5) the right to participate in national presidential elections; and 

(6) the seating of a Resident Commissioner in Washington. 

It should be noted that an accompanying resolution on status adopted by the Convention rejected at that point both independence and annexation by a larger political unit, and expressed a desire to attain "full self-government in closest association with the United States." 

Within a relatively short period, a majority of the reforms advanced by the 1964 Constitutional Convention were approved by the U.S. Congress. In 1969, the Elective Governor Act was passed. This milestone act not only provided for the popular election of the governor and expanded the powers of that office vis a vis the Department of Interior, but abolished the presidential veto on local legislation and extended various remaining provisions of the Bill of Rights. 

With such legislation, the pre-eminent feature of overt colonial rule--the appointed governor—was thus eliminated. In 1970, the Delegate to Congress Act was passed, granting the Virgin Islands official representation within the halls of the U.S. Congress. Soon thereafter, the Delegate was granted voting membership to various committees and subcommittees concerned with insular affairs. By this modality, Congress provided for the people of the Virgin Islands direct participation in the process of Congressional legislation.

In short, one of the more salient aspects of change in the Virgin Islands over the past several decades has been their emergence from erstwhile colony to a largely internally self-governing, democratic political system--both on a de jure and de facto basis. Again, this does not mean that all unilateral federal controls of a legal nature have been eliminated, that all demands have been met as quickly as hoped, or that the islands enjoy complete autonomy. But neither does it mean that advances have not been steady or significant, that the Virgin Islands of today bare any marked resemblance to the Virgin Islands of a few decades ago, that a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction still prevails, or that further advances are not forthcoming. 

Although the character of political discourse in the islands has, to a large extent, shifted from issues of political status to the challenges of the process of modernization, the desire for greater autonomy and ultimate self-determination will certainly persist consistent with the framework of the United States Constitution. It is likely that a Constitutional Convention will be held in the near future to consider further. changes, and most importantly, draft a document--a basic law-- of our own making. 

It is my conviction that this document will reflect the sentiment and re-affirm the principles expressed in the 1965 resolution on political status--that the people of the Virgin Islands at this stage are unalterably opposed to annexation by any other larger unit, that they are unalterably opposed to independence from the United States of America, and that they desire to advance their political status with the fullest measure of internal self-government and in the closest association with the United States of America." 

It is also my firm belief that the draft constitutional document emanating from this conference, and representing, as it should, the will and desires of the people of the Virgin Islands freely determined, will be considered and adopted by the Congress of the United States. By that modality, Congress would re-affirm a constitutional document adapted to the needs of the Virgin Islands--it would reaffirm a document consistent with the national policy of progressively perfecting political forms that meet the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Virgin Islands.