Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 509, 6 May 2022

The Virgin Islands: Protests against a direct rule by the UK
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 28 April, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported the arrest of the premier of the British Virgin Islands in Miami under the suspect of money laundering and scheme to import drugs. Following the arrest, a report was released on 29 April by the governor, Queen Elizabeth's representative, John Rankin, which stated that millions of dollars of state funds were found to be mishandled by the politicians. Apart from this it also found dishonesty with regards to sale of public property and exploitation of appointments. It said: "the corruption, abuse of office, and other serious dishonesty," was found in the country's governance.

On 29 April, the report mandated for the suspension of the constitution, dissolution of the government and proposed for direct ruling of the British Virgin Islands from the UK. According to Rankin: "He notes that the people of the BVI deserve better, and that the UK government owes them an obligation to protect them from such abuses and assist them to achieve their aspirations for self-government as a modern democratic state." On the same the UK foreign secretary Liz Truss said: "shows clearly that substantial legislative and constitutional change is required."

On 2 May, an investigation was launched, which was led by the UK judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom. After looking into the case of corruption, he recommended for the Island to be administered from London for next two years.

On 3 May, the proposal from UK to impose a direct rule, triggered demonstrations outside the Government House. The rejection comes due to the colonial link of the region and the UK. The slogans held by the protestors said: "No to British rule, and no going back to chains." One of the protestor voiced out: "How can you speak for us if you have not had a conversation with us, the people? It is possible for us to condemn the actions of corrupt leaders and also believe that we can be authorities on good governance as well."

Issues at large
First, the Island's link with the UK. The link between England and the British Virgin Islands dates back to 1672 before signing of the Treaty of Westminster. Where the British took control of the Islands from the Dutch, which slowly led to slavery. The increase in the slaves, led to mass revolts resulting in abolition of slavery and end to British colonialism. Later, the Island was brought under new constitution, followed by first elections in 1967, which established the self-governance to a limited extent and further expanded in 2007. Since then, the island territories came under a single realm of the Crown. These Islands are majorly operated for offshore financial reasons and each of overseas territories constitutional status differs as per the British Nationality Act 1981. A white paper on the constitutional position released on 2012 stated: "powers are devolved to the elected governments of the Territories to the maximum extent possible consistent with the UK retaining those powers necessary to discharge its sovereign responsibilities."

Second, the report by the UK government. The UK published the Hickinbottom report found the principles of good governance, transparency, and rule of law was ignored. It also included gaining contract, grants of assistance, disposing of Crown land, and misuse of enormous amount of public money. It also found evidence of "chronic lack of governance," dishonesty, and gross deficiencies. It posed four recommendations based on the evidence: suspension of parts of the constitution, which looks into the assignment of elected representatives; carrying out a constitutional review through setting up a commission to put the mechanisms back in place;  to bring transparency in government decisions for good governance; and an "independent and impartial" auditing in areas of decision making and expenditure.

Third, the response of the Islanders. At the state level, the acting premier has raised concerns about UK's plan to impose direct rule. This means there will be no more elected representatives to represent the people and territory. With no elected representative brings the challenge of understanding and bringing reforms for the benefit of the public. At the spiritual level, the Baptists have taken the front in organizing the protests, bringing the religious unity amongst the people to go against UK's proposal. At the civilian level, people gathered to protest against removing their rights to choose their representative. They demand a new elected leader and elections to take place.

In perspective
The question of democracy vs dictatorship. The Island territories were never granted complete self-governance. The constitution signed in 2007 to self-govern contains the provisions that allow the UK to take over in circumstances of power manipulation, resource exploitation, and bad governance. Although the direct rule is seen as an oppressive act by the people, UK's colonial link ensured to install democracy in the Island. This can be observed in the Turks and Caicos Islands case, where the direct rule was imposed over evidence of corruption in 2009. After a three-year term, the islanders were allowed to rule back and later in 2015, a new parliament was set up. The British Virgin Islands might go through the same process, which will benefit the lifestyle of people in the long term.

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