The rule of law is fundamental to the Virgin Islands, perhaps more so than many people realise.
Therefore, it was troubling to read in the May 9 edition of The BVI Beacon the premier’s responses when questioned about the purported revocation of the appointments of all members of the board of trustees of the Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund, which was established under the VI Climate Change Trust Fund Act, 2015.
The Beacon’s story read, in part, as follows:
“On April 24 the Cabinet decided to revoke the membership of all six appointed members of the Climate Change Trust Fund board.
The board’s enabling legislation, however, doesn’t appear to grant Cabinet the authority for such a sweeping move.
Section 16 of the Climate Change Trust Fund Act states that with Cabinet approval the minister overseeing the fund — who in this case is Premier Andrew Fahie — may revoke a board member’s appointment for specific reasons: misconduct, absenteeism, a conflict of interest, failure to fulfil the conditions of appointment, or acting in a way that is ‘detrimental to the trust.’
But in a message last Thursday, the premier told the Beacon that the memberships were revoked because of a new ‘policy’ under which the boards of all government committees and statutory bodies will have a tenure mirroring the ‘life span’ of the government in power.
He added that all such bodies will be appointed new members and that the action was not specific to any one entity.
Mr. Fahie also said that some original members would be allowed to serve on the new boards but that their membership would extend only as long as the current administration is in power.
Asked about the legality of revoking the trust fund’s board, he wrote that the ‘issue is well at hand and that will be advanced in due course,’ but he did not elaborate further.”
The “issue is well at hand and that will be advanced in due course,” without elaboration, is a troubling response from the premier to the strong suggestion that his government’s actions were not lawful.
As of this writing, it does not appear that “in due course” has yet come to pass, and the people of the VI appear to have been left to wonder about the attitude of the premier and his government to the rule of law in the VI.
Perhaps the premier did not intend to appear flippant about the rule of law — certainly I hope not — but unfortunately his responses can be taken that way.
On its face, it appears that there was no legal basis to revoke the appointments of all members of the board of trustees, nor has the premier or anyone asserted that there was a basis for their appointments to be revoked.
The government’s silence is deafening.
An acceptable response might have been for the premier to provide a clear, full and reasoned explanation of the basis for the purported revocation of the appointments.
But to sound indifferent to the legality of his government’s action was unwise, and, if unintended, should be clarified — speedily, fully and very publicly.
The unlawful revocation of the appointments of the independent trustees of an important independent public statutory trust fund would be very troubling in and of itself.
If, on some basis, the revocation of the appointments was not unlawful, the public misapprehension should have been, and still must be, explained clearly and fully.
What is at stake
Significantly, it is more than the unlawful revocation of the appointments of all the trustees of an important independent public statutory trust fund that is at stake.
Few will forget the breakdown of the rule of law and national security following hurricanes Irma and Maria. Not thugs and criminals, but decent, apparently God-fearing, people abandoned their values and ethics and turned to looting. And not for necessities of life, but many for luxury items.
Respect for the rule of law must be demonstrated publicly and consistently by the leadership of a country and a society.
The last thing any society should have is its people consciously, or unconsciously, believing that they need not respect the rule of law. It is fundamental to the nature of a society and to its national security.
And what about the young people of the VI, about whom the premier does sincerely care? What are they to take from this attitude towards the rule of law? How will this shape their values and behaviour? What are the long-term implications for VI society and for national security?
For those reasons as well, the premier and his Cabinet must show leadership in respect for the rule of law. But there is more.
The success of the VI’s financial services industry, the major contributor to the territory’s economy, is in a very important way based on a belief of people around the world that they can trust that the rule of law is a hallmark of the VI.
In many cases, they are incorporating in the VI at least in part because their home jurisdictions do not offer them the rule of law.
As we know so well, they have choices.
Opening up the possibility that the government of the VI lacks respect for the rule of law and is willing to act contrary to the law, or act indifferently to the law, threatens to undermine the crucial reputation for the rule of law that the VI enjoys and must maintain.
Whatever new policy a government may wish to introduce, it must be introduced in accordance with the law of the jurisdiction.
Of course, a majority government can seek to change the law. But the premier and Cabinet of the VI should not contravene the law as it stands. Nor should they be — or be seen to be — indifferent to the law as it stands.
Advice to premier
I urge the honourable premier and the Cabinet to walk back from what the premier said — and failed to say — to this newspaper.
Premier, if you misspoke, or if you did intend to say what you were quoted as saying, please tell the people of the VI that it was without sufficient thought, that it does not reflect your view or your government’s view of the rule of law, and that it will not be how your government will conduct itself on this issue, or on any other issue during the life of your government.
This situation presents you with an important opportunity for an act of courageous leadership by making it clear that you and your government fully respect and support the rule of law and will always uphold it.
And if that means not being able to implement your desired “policy change” and leaving in place the members of the board of trustees of the VI Climate Change Trust Fund, so be it.
Please, premier and members of Cabinet, do the right thing. It is tremendously important for the VI.