Dr. the Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley
Premier and Minister of Finance
11 November, 2022
Launch of Constitutional Review Public Consultations
Honourable Leader of the Opposition and Representative for the 3rd District, Honourable Julian Fraser.
Mrs. Lisa Penn-Lettsome, Chair of the Constitutional Review Commission.
Commissioners Dr. Charles Wheatley and Dr. Reverand Melvin Turnbull, we are grateful for your presence here.
And I am also grateful to the media for being here to capture this important event.
A pleasant Good Afternoon to you all and members of the listening and viewing public.
The Constitution is perhaps one of the most important documents for any society.
It sets out the rules by which the members of that community agree to govern themselves. It establishes the institutions of Government, the parameters and rules by which these institutions operate and interact with one another, and how the relationship between the people and their Government is to be managed.
The Constitution usually includes such things as fundamental rights, the powers and limitations thereof of Constitutional actors such as the Governor, the Attorney General, elected Representatives and Ministers, to name a few. In our case as an Overseas Territory, our Constitution also defines aspects of the relationship between the UK Government and the elected Territorial Government.
These are very important functions for a Constitution. And one of the most critical things to note is that when a written Constitution is enacted, its content cannot be changed very easily – even if the effectiveness or relevance of a provision becomes an issue due to changes within the society over time. So, you have to live with and abide by that text until the time comes around to write a new Constitution or you have to go through the rigorous process required to make the necessary amendment.
What this means is that in designing our new Constitution we need to put deep thought into what we want it to say and what we want it to contain. We also have to look towards the future and gauge what our future needs from a Constitution may be so that those issues can be taken into account during the Constitutional Review process.
Since the return of legislative function to our shores in 1950 – 72 years ago – the Virgin Islands has had four written Constitutions. Our current Constitution, the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007 was enacted 15 years ago. The Constitution prior to that was enacted in 1976 – 31 years prior to the 2007 Constitution. So, persons can appreciate why it is important to get the provisions right.
Persons would recall that when the current Constitution was enacted, the intention was that it would be reviewed after 10 years. In 2017, the then Premier Dr the Honourable D. Orlando Smith had stated the Government’s intention to commence a Constitutional Review. This effort was thwarted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Constitutional Review remained a live topic, and in June 2020 the House of Assembly approved the establishment of a Constitutional Review Commission with Terms of Reference. The intention was to put everything in place so that the Commission would be able to begin work when the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic abated.
Of course, we all know that the pandemic was protracted. This pushed back the timeline and the Commissioners received their instruments of appointment in December 2021.
The report of the Sir Gary Hickinbottom Commission of Inquiry, at page 691, acknowledges that the current Constitution “cannot take the weight it has to bear” and, at Recommendation A2, calls for urgent review of the Constitution. Sir Gary Hickinbottom points out that we must aim for a new Constitution “that will enable the people of the BVI to meet their aspirations, including those in respect of self-government within the context of modern democracy,” and which will also enable the progressive development of our own political institutions.
The COI Report recommended some issues that should be included in the Terms of Reference of the Constitutional Review and amendments to the composition of the Commission, and these were taken on board by the House of Assembly in a Resolution approved in September 2022.
Other preparatory work having been completed, the Constitutional Review Commission, under the Chairmanship of Mrs Lisa Penn-Lettsome is ready to begin engaging the public for its input into the development of our new Constitution. The Commission has set up a website: www.yourconstitution.vg. Please check it out.
Sir Gary Hickinbottom, in his Report, mentioned the alignment of the Constitution to our aspirations as a Virgin Islands people, and the issue of our self-determination. These are not new topics to us, but it is good to see that he has acknowledged them and their role in the Constitutional Review exercise.
We should note that since 1949, our fore parents have articulated a vision for Virgin Islanders to have greater control and say in their own governance – and even before that; we can go back to those persons who rebelled against slavery. These principles have carried forward throughout the decades. The Preamble to the 2007 Constitution also speaks to the significance of our unique cultural identity that has been formed, and which continues to evolve, over generations, and our quest for social justice, economic empowerment and political advancement, as well as self-determination.
I mention this because our political status is a topic that is sure to come up as the Constitutional Review Commission engages in dialogue with the public as it proceeds with its work. Self-determination is not a topic to shy away from. No topic that is dear to any individual should be shied away from.
But with respect to self-determination and the political status of the Virgin Islands, not only has the COI Report highlighted its importance and relevance, but the United Nations Charter, Article 73, also charges Non-Self-Governing Territories and Administrating Powers with the responsibility to bring an end to colonialism and its remnants. The United Nations has dedicated four consecutive decades to this mission of resolving and regularizing the political status of the Non-Self-Governing Territories.
It is also worth noting that the Virgin Islands Assessment of Self-Governance Sufficiency in Conformity with Internationally-Recognised Standards Report, prepared in 2021 by Carlyle G. Corbin, International Advisor on Governance, has also emphasized that our current Constitutional arrangements are no longer suitable to furthering the transition that is required by Article 73(b) of the UN Charter and the transfer of power doctrine under the Decolonisation Declaration.
Mr Corbin also recommends that we must have a new Constitution, and a Constitutional arrangement, that is suitable to the decolonization/ self-determination objective, with an appropriate timetable for replacing the present “asymmetrical dependency governance model” with one that does not have a democratic deficit and which will truly facilitate the Virgin Islands people being able to pursue and achieve their aspirations.
Addressing the issue of political status requires us to assess, define and articulate our vision and aspirations as a people. The Constitution, by establishing and strengthening institutions, and defining, limiting and regulating the powers and roles of the political actors, designs and equips the institutions for political development and advancement. Therefore, our new Constitution will be the vehicle for taking us wherever we, as a collective society, decide we want to go – and when we wish to get there. We have to make sure it is fit for purpose.
The how, where and when is also dependent on the role the UK will play in our governance and the powers that will be reserved for the Governor. Recommendations A2 (iii) and (iv) of the Sir Gary Hickinbottom Report also speak to these issues – and the House of Assembly have incorporated them into the Terms of Reference for the Constitutional Review Commission. Those two sub-Recommendations entreat the Virgin Islands people to have their say on what powers should be reserved to the Governor, and mandate for the new Constitution to have a mechanism for the transfer of reserved powers to the devolved Virgin Islands Government in the future, without a further change to the Constitution being required.
So, these are very important issues, and it is important that as many persons as possible come forward and share their views and have their voices heard on these matters. I know that the Constitutional Review Commission will be conducting some public education exercises, along with public consultations. Additionally, the public is already being invited to prepare written submissions to the Commission and to set up appointments to meet with the Commission if they so desire.
I want to urge all persons to ensure that they are included in the conversation and ensure that their views are heard – and to participate in a respectful manner. If you do not make use of this opportunity, it may be a very long time before another one presents itself.
I know that the members of the Constitutional Review Commission and all our Constitutional actors are fully aware that if a constitution does not reflect what the people want, then that contradicts everything a Constitution is supposed to stand for and it makes a mockery of the process.
This is why I believe it is safe to say that the Constitutional Review Commission aims to ensure that the new Constitution reflects the aspirations and the will of the Virgin Islands people – who are the persons, along with the future generations, who will be most directly impacted by the Constitution when it is written and put into effect.
The Virgin Islands we want to create for the future and the future we want for our people depend on the Constitution we are about to create.
But, for the Commission to know what is in the hearts and minds of Virgin Islanders, we all have to come forward and tell them – whether in open meetings or in written submissions.
I take this opportunity to thank all the members of the Constitutional Review Commission for their service and for the diligence with which I know they will approach this assignment.
I look forward to wide public participation, and I look forward to us having a robust, relevant and functional Constitution that is aligned with our aspirations and vision as a people, and which will enable us to realize the dreams of our fore-bearers who carried the torch for generations before us.
I thank you, and may God continue to bless and protect our Virgin Islands and its people, and may he continue to guide us on the path to success and prosperity.