Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

The Turks and Caicos Islands

Here's an international story that caught my eye this week, concerning a place I know very little about: Britain is about to revoke the democratically elected institutions of the Turks and Caicos Islands and give the London-appointed Governor power to rule directly in consultation with an appointed Council.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are among a dozen or so remaining non-sovereign British territories around the world, not all of which (eg the Cyprus military bases) have any democratic pretensions. Their population of around 30,000 is about the same as Monaco and Liechtenstein, and like them they have got significant benefits from being a tax haven - economic statistics are tricky to pin down but the latest UN figures give it a per capita GDP of a whopping $29,706, which is just ahead of Hong Kong, Greece and Cyprus and just behind Spain, Brunei and New Zealand, and way ahead of it neighbours apart from Bermuda, the BVI and the Caymans.

The reasons why the British are taking this pretty massive step are not as yet being made fully public. A retired judge, Sir Robin Auld, has published an interim report, after being asked to investigate "whether there is information that corruption or other serious dishonesty in relation to past and present elected members of the House of Assembly (previously known as the Legislative Council) may have taken place in recent years". This is a pretty broad remit: as Sir Robin puts it, his tasks "could not sensibly have been expressed with lower thresholds".

The interim report proposes suspending the entire constitution and removing trial by jury, for at least a year, starting probably early next week. Almost no evidence is given in the report as to why these steps should be taken. Browsing through press reports, though, one finds references to the outgoing prime minister's millionaire lifestyle and lavish expenditure, and to the climate of fear that prevented locals from speaking out. It should also be noted that this is the second time round: the TCI constitution was previously suspended for two years in 1986, for what appear to have been similar reasons. I note with some amusement that there has been a proposal to do a Newfoundland on the TCI and unite them with Canada, though we haven't seen much of it recently.

One debating point I often encounter (as someone who has been professionally involved with issues like the independence of Montenegro, Kosovo, the Western Sahara and Somaliland) is the question of whether small new states can be "viable". It has always seemed to me a bogus point; international law rightly gives priority on these matters to the wishes of the people concerned, without imposing our external judgements as to whether they are right. The only example I can think of in the last century where an independent state actually gave up its sovereignty because the economics were not working out is Newfoundland in 1934. The best example of a failed state today is surely Somalia, whose population is about ten million, and whose problems include the fact that it was bolted together from two separate colonial units, precisely because the "viability" argument was used against the separate independence of the former British Somaliland (which has since de facto reclaimed it and seems entirely viable in its own right).

The basic problem is that the TCI are a poor state which has become rich quicker than its institutions can properly manage. There are plenty of independent countries with similar problems, where the option of the colonial masters reimposing their authority does not apply (and a fair number of non-independent countries where for one reason or another it's not an option). The international community's response in such situations is not often very robust: it consists of supporting the development of adequate local institutions and (at the smarter end) conditioning aid and political status on the local government's ability to comply. Unfortunately, for a lot of places, corruption pays better than honesty.

I'm adding the TCI to my monitoring list for now.
Tags: world: tci
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