14 March 2017

'U.S. Virgin Islands at the centennial of U.S.dependency' explored at two academic conferences in United States and Denmark

Charice Antonia Rivera and Eldris Bradford II

Special to OTR

Scholarly papers on the political evolution of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) were presented to two academic conferences in the the United States (U.S.) and Denmark in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the territory as a U.S. dependency. 

The most recent paper entitled "A Centennial of United States dependency - Decolonization or Colonial Reform for the U.S. Virgin Islands?" was presented at the 58th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) which convened in Baltimore, Maryland from 22nd to 25th February 2017. ISA has over 6,500 members worldwide and is the most respected and widely known scholarly association dedicated to international studies. 

The analytical paper, delivered to the panel on Human Rights and Foreign Policy, was presented by International Advisor on Governance Dr. Carlyle Corbin.

OTR file photo
The paper focused on the choices before the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands as it examines options for its future political status evolution. In his presentation, the author noted that "the centennial is an appropriate time to take stock of developments since the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. in 1917, ushering in a transition from Danish to U.S. colonialism and the emergence of the territory as a U.S. dependency."

Corbin, who is a Senior Fellow in the global Dependency Studies Project, introduced the paper with an examination of the international standards for the full measure of self-government for those dependencies such as the U.S. Virgin Islands which were placed under United Nations (U.N.) review pursuant to the signing of the U.N. Charter in 1945. He noted that the standards were systematically refined over the next fifteen year period, culminating in the adoption of the 1960 Decolonization Declaration and its companion resolution [(1541 (XV)] which provided the minimum standards for full self-government under independence, free association and integration.

He also emphasized the significance of the core human rights conventions which confirmed self-determination as a fundamental human right for the people of the remaining territories. He made specific reference to the significance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), indicating that "these are among the respected international conventions which have direct relevance to the U.S. Virgin Islands and other dependent territories globally."

The author emphasized the "international legislative authority of decades of U.N. General Assembly resolutions on self-determination and its consequent decolonization as collective policy positions taken by the global community to give substance to the mandate of bringing the full measure of self-government to the remaining territories, and especially the island dependencies in the Caribbean and the Pacific." Extensive comparisons were made in the presentation to the existent dependency governance models in the two geographic regions of the Caribbean and Pacific administered by the United Kingdom, the United States, France and the Netherlands.

Moving to the U.S. Virgin Islands as the specific focus of the paper, Corbin cited the three historical time frames of the pre-Danish Period, the Danish Colonial Period, and the transition to U.S administration. Regarding the pre-Danish period, he discussed the evolution of the territory from the first European encounter over 4,000 years ago. He went on to address the various stages of Dutch, British and French rule through the seventeenth century, followed by the transition to Danish control through settlements on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. He noted that Danish acquisition of the island of St. Croix from France in 1733 "served to unify the control of the three islands."

Corbin, who formerly served as Minister of State for External Affairs of the U.S. Virgin Islands Government, discussed the development of sugar cultivation as the basis of plantation economies on St. Croix and St. John made profitable through the use of the labour of those enslaved Africans who had been captured on the continent and who had survived the "infamous Atlantic passage" to the islands. While referring to this practice as a "crime against humanity," he contrasted the slave plantation economy of St, Croix and St. John to the emergence of St. Thomas as a transshipment port for trade in the Caribbean region. He noted that the plantation economy on St. Croix flourished until 1848 when "the enslaved Africans rebelled and forced their emancipation." 

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"The post emancipation period ushered in subsequent colonial governance mechanisms," he pointed out, "including the Danish Labour Act of 1849, and the later Colonial Laws of 1852, 1863 and 1906, before the three islands were ultimately sold to the U.S. in 1917 for U.S. 25 million in gold." Corbin went on to provide a chronology of "incremental political developments" through the century of U.S. rule dating from the earlier forms of military governance, the extension of citizenship, five attempts to draft a territorial constitution within the dependency status, as well as efforts to address the broader question of selecting a political status through referendum. He highlighted the importance of ongoing efforts by the University of the Virgin Islands' self-determination project to "rekindle a conversation on the political evolution of the territory." 

Corbin pointed out that "the specific areas of democratic deficiency such as lack of voting rights for the U.S. president and in the U.S. House of Representatives are clear indications of the political inequality which characterizes the U.S. dependency status of the U.S. Virgin Islands and other dependencies similarly situated in 2017."  He referred to Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands and Puerto Rico as further examples of the distinction between territories which are not legally part of the U.S. and integrated U.S. states which are a part of the U.S., and accordingly exercise full political rights.

Corbin cautioned that extension of such 'partial rights' for the U.S. territories within the U.S. political system without examining closely the implications of such a move "would not result in fuill political equality which is a basic tenant of democratic governance." 

"Before any such unilateral change in the political status is made, he argued, "the people of the territory should be given the opportunity to express whether they wish it to be so, and only after a thorough examination of the ramifications." 

Instead, Corbin argued that "overall political status evolution was a better approach in determining the equality of rights through integrated status as a state within the U.S. political system, or as independent or associated country status where the relationship with the U.S. would be on the basis of equality."

"Interestingly," he noted "the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico have adopted legislation surrounding these three options of full political equality, and are embarking on a referendum where the people will decide among these alternatives."   
In this context, he also cited existent examples of autonomous political status arrangements globally which meet the minimum global standards of self-government, including the Cook Islands in association with New Zealand, Greenland with Denmark, and Micronesia with the U.S. 

"Models like that which govern Curacao, Sint Maarten, and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean have been shown over time to have fallen below the acceptable level of these global standards," he indicated, while observing that "proposals for modernization to raise these polities to the level of full self-government are being actively pursued." 

He went on to differentiate the dependency status from the autonomous country status, while also shedding light on the models of political integration in referencing Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana whose people have full political rights in the French Republic. 

Corbin discounted the efficacy of reforming the current U.S. territorial status models in the Caribbean and Pacific "if it means that the dependencies would remain subject to the unilateral power of the U.S. Congress and therefore deficient in terms of genuine self-governance sufficiency." In this connection, he concluded that decades of legislation repeatedly introduced in the U.S. Congress to extend certain political rights to the U.S. territories within the U.S. political system "have not borne fruit, and U.S. court decisions have continuously reaffirmed that such rights are constitutionally only available to integrated U.S. states."

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With specific reference to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the author referred to "unresolved questions which would have to be addressed at the societal level as a precursor to advancing a genuine and sustainable political status process, as opposed to one of mere colonial reform of the status quo dependency arrangement where the unilateral authority of the cosmopole and the political inequality remain intact." 

In this regard, he referred to the importance of "societal realization of the democratic deficiencies of the status quo" and their impact on the political and economic situation in the territory.

"The importance of the realization by the political directorate in the territory of the need for a fundamental evolution towards full self-government cannot be underestimated," he said.

Corbin concluded the paper by indicating that "initiatives in other dependencies administered by the U.S. and European powers,  could serve as useful examples in determining a favorable approach which the U.S. Virgin Islands might take in moving forward from 100 years of political inequality to a status of full political equality." 

Diplomacy from the Periphery

An earlier paper on the U.S. Virgin Islands centennial was presented to an international conference convened last fall at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark from 24-26 November 2016. The paper, also presented by Dr. Corbin, was entitled "Diplomacy from the Periphery- the international relations of a former Danish colony," and was delivered to the Second Conference of the New Diplomatic History Network under the theme Borders, Networks and Organisations through the 20th century. Scholars from a range of tertiary institutions presented papers at the conference:

 National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies 
 American University 
 Instituto Universitario de Lisboa 
 Russian Fed. National Research University  
 University of Ghent  
 University of Birmingham  
 Chinese University of Hong Kong  
 Aarhus University 
 Lund University    
 University of Münster 
 University of Sussex   
 Aalborg University 
 University of Oslo  
 Södertörn University 
 Complutense University 
 Stockholm University 
 Catholic University of Chile
 Hebrew University 
 Bucknell University
 Georgetown University
 Aberystwyth University          
 Loughborough University         
 Universität der Bundeswehr          
  University of Turku                
 University of Strasbourg             


The paper focused on the evolution of the external affairs programme of the U.S. Virgin Islands from the period 1975 through 2006 during which time the international organization activity of the territory progressively evolved. 

Corbin noted that "despite the lack of devolved political autonomy for U.S. territories to participate in international organizations, the U.S. Virgin Islands successfully negotiated substantial delegated power to engage an array of global organizations through membership, associate membership or observer status."

He pointed out that there were other areas where international organization participation was achieved "by utilizing the international legal principle of 'acquired right' as in the case of the engagement with the U.N. self-determination process where the territory's future political status remains the subject of formal review by the international community." 

Corbin recalled that the external affairs program of the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands during the period "served as an important tool for the acquisition of information, training and international exposure on a wide range of social, economic and constitutional development issues, and helped to break the territory's isolation from the regional and global development debate." He noted that such global engagement "enhanced capacity through shared experience with other non-sovereign jurisdictions." 

The paper went on to identlfy the specific international organizations in which the U.S. Virgin Islands participated including the U.N. Decolonization Committee, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC), and an array of U.N. world conferences in the economic and social sphere.

He also made reference to the challenges faced as the territory sought the delegation of authority to formally engage the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the Association of Caribbean States.

The paper went on to chronicle successful initiatives in the creation of the Inter Virgin Islands Conference (and later Council) between neighboring British Virgin Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands; and the Alliance of Dependent Territories between the Pacific and Caribbean dependencies administered by the U.S.

The paper concluded with an examination of the challenges faced by successive territorial governments in their sustained engagement with the United Nations decolonization process.

"In many respects, the territory exercised, perhaps, the most active^ engagement with the international system among the territories," Corbin concluded, "and the experience gained from this activity was valuable in setting the territory's place in the global environment."


Inter- Territorial

Political / Constitutional

Inter Virgin Islands Council


Economic Commission for Latin America & Caribbean (ECLAC)

(associate member)

Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS)

(observer status)

Study on political status & constitutional development

Offshore Governors' Forum (OGF)

(five party)

Caribbean Development & Cooperation Committee (CDCC)

(associate member)

United Nations (U.N.) economic and social development conferences

(observer status)

U.N. Review Process:

  Committee on Decolonization

Special Political and Decolonization Committee

Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS)

(cooperation agreement)

Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)


[Caribbean Community (CARICOM)]


[Association of Caribbean States]



Dependency Studies Project