Update on the Implementation of the COI Recommendations – Statement By The Premier Honourable Dr. Natalio D. Wheatley

Update on the  Implementation of the COI Recommendations

A pleasant good afternoon to the Press Corps, persons listening online and via radio, and Virgin Islanders here at home and abroad.  Firstly, allow me to wish the people of the Virgin Islands a blessed and prosperous 2024.  May we as a people ask Our Most High God for wisdom, knowledge, and understanding as we navigate the tumultuous waters on this journey of nation building.

I am pleased to be joined by my Government colleagues with whom it is an honour to serve the people of the Virgin Islands as we work together to build a model democracy in which we thrive as a community.

As I indicated in my address last Friday in response to the Governor’s quarterly update on governance reform, I am holding this press conference to provide the public with greater detail on the progress of implementation. Unfortunately, the Governor’s press conference did not present the full picture of where things stand. It is extremely important that you are aware of the full extent of the work your Government has been undertaking and the context. First, however, I would like to reiterate some of the key points I made in my previous address.

My colleagues and I are alarmed and deeply offended by the Governor’s request for additional powers to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry (COI). Only as recently as last month we agreed a joint declaration with the United Kingdom (UK) Government which spoke to the deep, historic and enduring partnership between the UK and the Overseas Territories (OTs). Further, it affirmed the principle of equal rights and self-determination of the people of the Overseas Territories as enshrined in the United Nations Charter and pledged greater consultation between the UK Government and the Governments of the Overseas Territories. The hallmark of a modern partnership is democratic engagement between partners.

Now, for the Governor to seek the power to overrule our Constitution and have  the authority to act in areas of constitutional responsibility devolved to the elected arm of Government, especially after a General Election only just over eight months ago, is a shock to the system. The fact that this request has been made without any consultation with the Government of the Virgin Islands harkens back to the heyday of colonial Governors ruling over these Virgin Islands.

This Government has said from the start that we see the reforms recommended by the COI in April 2022, as an essential route to improving the delivery of transparent, effective and accountable government in the Virgin Islands.

To this end, we have worked with our officials to effect what is a major transformation and reform of government for the Territory. We have stated on a number of occasions that given the capacity and staffing resources of the Government of the Virgin Islands, the original timelines for implementation of the COI Recommendations and Other Reforms were always extremely tight. This, together with the day-to-day responsibility of governing a country still recovering from two category five hurricanes, and with two economic pillars in tourism and financial services, which need constant care and attention, made for a significant challenge. But we have put our shoulder to the wheel to get implementation across the line and there has been significant progress which I want to outline to you today.

I also want to give more details on some of the areas the Governor has mentioned, but which unfortunately  were not adequately addressed in his report.

As of 30th November 2023, 50% of the recommendations agreed in the implementation framework between the Government of the Virgin Islands and the UK Government had been fully implemented.

Within the 50 Recommendations, there are 131 Actions. Of these 80 (61%) have been completed, while there are 34 actions (26%) that are in the red zone, meaning that they are not yet completed and the deadline agreed for their completion has passed. The December report is currently being finalised, so I will be able to update you on additional progress within the next two weeks. However, today, I want to give you some perspective specifically on these red zone actions and where we stand on them. I would not ordinarily give this level of detail in a speech but given the Governor’s recent statement, I think that it is essential that I give a full measure of clarity, so you, the People of the Virgin Islands can understand where the COI Implementation stands.

Firstly, we have four actions that will need constitutional amendment in order for them to be marked as completed. Two of these actions relate to Declaring House of Assembly Interests and another two relate to the Jury Act.

Secondly, we have four actions that are waiting on the Governor himself. As he admits in his report, he has faced challenges balancing the need to implement the recommended reforms with the capacity to bring those reforms into effect. The reforms within his area of responsibility, including those in law and order and prisons are urgent and I find it questionable that the Governor can turn a blind eye to his own failure to make adequate progress on these reforms, but wishes to penalise the Government of the Virgin Islands for its capacity challenges.

We have two further actions that have actually advanced almost to completion but are now dependent on external action outside of our control. These relate to our Criminal Procedure Rules reform. We have completed the draft for Cabinet’s approval but the Chief Justice has asked us to allow the OECS review to be completed before we advance our own so they can be in synergy. We have been advised that this will be completed by the end of March.

We have two Reviews that our Audit Department is working assiduously to complete: The Audit of COVID Assistance Grants covers two actions and the other has to do with Audit of Contracts over $100,000.

We, of course, also have our critical law enforcement reviews which span three actions that were initially delayed because the reviewers first selected could not in fact conduct the reviews. I should point out that the delay in this area has worked out to the benefit of the Virgin Islands as the reviewers now engaged wish to maintain a long-term relationship with our law enforcement bodies, and will help us to build capacity and standards moving forwards.

Outside of the red zone, we have eight actions that are ongoing throughout the COI Implementation process which cannot be marked as completed until the full process is finished. These are connected to how the process works and is monitored.

Finally, we had completed much of our election reform but in consideration of the 2023 election, we agreed not to make significant changes to our electoral process right before a general election. Following the election, the Elections Supervisor and external observers have submitted their reports and their recommendations will be considered for incorporation into the reforms that we already intend to implement.

I remind everyone that reform is not a tick box exercise to check off deadlines. We must live and breathe these reforms and thus consider all the factors involved, some of which were not raised during the COI hearings but that are certainly significant. The process must also be democratic and involve our people and the relevant stakeholders. This is the only way we can make positive and lasting change for our territory.

I share the Governor’s urgency in advancing to completion the reforms and seeing us come safely through the task that the COI has set before us, but true reform is about building capacity and resilience and ensuring that all of us in the Virgin Islands understand what we must do to move forwards. Time is needed above all else- time to consider, time to consult and time to draught new legislation and amend existing laws.

Indeed, because we have taken that time, we have at least one action for which a different solution has been envisioned from what was originally agreed in the Framework and which may need now to be considered closed. This relates to addressing the Border Security System.

In addition, there are a number of recommendations which have significant implications for our Territory, how we live and our future. We are a country of 30,000 and our people have opinions on these matters which as a Government, we cannot and will not simply ignore. Indeed, that is the whole of point of democracy.

Given this, the Government decided to extend its public and internal consultation periods, to ensure that we have taken all considerations into account before we map the way forward in these matters: There are 12 remaining Actions in these areas and they are related to Public Assistance Grants, Educational Assistance Grants, Crown Land Disposal, Belonger and Residency Status and the Public Service Management Act.

The quick path is not always the best path. This process is about understanding what is right and doing that requires transparency and thorough consultation so that reform would be driven by the democratic will of the people of the Virgin Islands.

And we should not be punished or our democratic and human rights threatened with an Order in Council in reserve to suspend our constitution. Nor should the Governor be granted additional powers just because he wants to see certain things done before he departs the Territory. He does not have the democratic accountability to make certain decisions for the people of these islands.

It is incredulous that the Governor, who has also sought extra time for unfinished tasks under his purview is pursuing a power grab to assume control over strategic areas within the elected government’s responsibility. This is an uneven approach that raises concerns about fairness and collaboration in addressing the challenges at hand.

This necessitates an partial suspension of the constitution – an alarming and retrograde step that should not be considered. Preserving democratic principles is paramount, and alternative solutions must be explored to expedite reforms without compromising our constitutional framework.

I will write to UK Overseas Territories Minister Hon. David Rutley immediately to urge him to decline the Governor’s request for additional powers  and remain on the path of partnership that he has led with the agreement of a Political Declaration between the UK, Virgin Islands and other Overseas Territories. It is not worth damaging the UK’s relationship with the Government and people of the Virgin Islands and sullying the UK’s international reputation as it grapples with its colonial past and the legacy of slavery. The perception of the UK matters in the Caribbean region, Commonwealth and the World.

A supportive approach by the UK would assist the Virgin Islands in progressing the remaining reforms and demonstrate the re-establishing of the modern partnership we have just agreed. That is the spirit of partnership Lord Goldsmith had in mind when he set the target date of May 2024 to lift the Order in Council in reserve that is not justified if you genuinely believe in democracy. I am asking Minister Rutley to stay true to partnership and democracy.

I restate today that my Administration remains firmly committed to full transparency and good governance and intends to fulfil our Framework Agreement. While realistic and appropriate timeframes will assist with this, our focus is  on completion at the highest possible level.

Where we stand on each Recommendation can be seen in the recently launched and publicly accessible COI tracking tool (Commission of Inquiry Implementation Tracker). The site will be populated with more details over the next few weeks but for now, you can see Recommendation by Recommendation, which have been implemented, which are in progress and which are yet to start. Importantly, you can also see where responsibility for implementation lies for each one.

Before I finish, I want to pay tribute to our public officers. While politicians are used to developing thick skins in the rough and tumble of political debate, it is essential to recognise that this should not be expected of our dedicated public officers.

The deflating and frankly anti-democratic words of the Governor are an insult to our voters. They also damage the morale of the very public officers who are working so tirelessly to ensure that the Virgin Islands fully implements the COI’s recommendations and through this enables us to develop truly modernised government structures.

Within the next six weeks, Cabinet will consider the new Educational Grants Policy, the new Crown Land Disposal Policy, the new Belongership and Residency Policy, the drafting instructions for the Public Service Management Act and the new Statutory Boards Management Policy. We have done much consultation on these and involved you, the citizens and residents of the Virgin Islands, as we considered how to best move forward.

This has only been possible through the hard work of our officers. I can assure all of them that this Government stands with them and together we will ensure that decision making in the Virgin Islands continues to be underpinned by democratic governance, continues to maintain our self-determination and continues to protect the interests of all Virgin Islanders.

Thank you very much for your attention and I would very much welcome questions from the press on the implementation of t

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