Caribbean independence, in different forms

The theme of independence was a common thread linking keynote presentations at the recent 50-50 Conference hosted by the University College of the Cayman Islands last week. 

UCCI, University of the West Indies and International College of the Cayman Islands collaborated to put on the latest in the annual series of Caribbean Conferences, which drew speakers from across the region and the world. The conference marked the 50th anniversary of the fall of the West Indies Federation of English-speaking territories. 

 

Self-determination 

In his feature address kicking off the Conference Wednesday evening, Barbados Leader of the Opposition (and former Prime Minster) Owen Arthur celebrated the relative success of the Caribbean region – despite its position as a collection of small and vulnerable countries.  

He stressed the need for an overhaul of the Caribbean Community, CARICOM, and strengthening of regional ties, as pressing financial realities threaten to fracture the region. 

“There is in consequence the real danger that the regional integration movement may come to be seen and treated as being the fifth wheel to the coach of the regional economy. Related to this, countries facing deep financial crisis and seeking immediate relief will increasingly look to extra-regional relations for solutions, and may do so in a manner that can put the regional project in peril,” Mr. Arthur said. 

On Thursday, consultant and former senior Caribbean ambassador Sir Ronald Sanders echoed many of Mr. Arthur’s sentiments. He said CARICOM’s current ineffectiveness and the poor economic performance of some independent Caribbean nations should be words of caution for non-independent territories hearing “the siren call for independence and nationhood, often made by political leaders within their countries”. 

“The urge for independence is often present among small and vocal groups who link their non-independent-status to slavery, exploitation and racism and who regard formal political independence as a defining end to that experience,” he said. “The urge is understandable, but for small states – and more particularly micro-states – the practicalities of its achievement should restrain passion.” 

He said a strong CARICOM and common market, if they existed, would function like a group of family members in support of a newly independent Caribbean nation. In their absence, however, circumspection is advised. 

Conversely, former Bermuda Premier Ewart Brown called for Bermudian independence sooner than later, arguing that British colonialism is “based on the simple belief that the British are superior”. 

Saying that even farm animals and insects develop into independent organisms, Mr. Brown said, “Political self-determination for me is a natural matter.” 

He admitted that a survey of Bermudians would probably show that more than 70 per cent are opposed to independence from the UK. “This is not the first time that people have been confused,” he said. 

 

Independent courts 

On another tack, Cayman Islands Chief Justice Anthony Smellie spoke on the importance of the financial and political independence of the judiciary and its members. The Chief Justice traced the concept of judicial independence from the Hebrew Testament and Greco-Roman civilisation, through the English monarchy and Magna Carta, to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the enshrinement of “separation of powers” in the US Constitution. 

He pointed to several examples of transgressions upon the independent judiciary in the British Commonwealth, including in Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, Malawi and Fiji, that have taken place since the beginning of the year. “The obvious lesson that these recent and current examples hold for us who enjoy the relative stability of our Caribbean democracies is, of course, that we may never take the great organising principle for granted,” he said. “The separation of powers is the ‘backbone of democracy’.” 

The Chief Justice said Caribbean governments are not entirely blameless, however. He related how some fellow judges “must first secure ministerial approval before they can travel to attend important conferences such as this one”, and that one colleague had his request to host the annual conference of Caribbean Heads of Judiciary peremptorily rebuffed by a minister as not being worth the expense.  

The Chief Justice also addressed fights over funding for legal aid, which has long been a contentious issue in the Cayman Islands. 

“Even more poignant and closer to home was the recent diversion of the entire legal aid budget away from the courts by way of ministerial edict for other ‘nation building purposes’. This was said to be justified in part out of a sense of political umbrage that the courts should not be spending money on expensive lawyers ‘to get criminals off the hook’,” he said, alluding to a particular tussle regarding the 2009/10 budget with the then-Leader of Government Business, now Premier, McKeeva Bush. 

“While the position with legal aid has since been restored to the status quo ante, the episode certainly gave the impression that the political directorate did not regard the administration of justice as an important priority and did not understand the need for the institutional independence of the judiciary as a vital aspect of its ability to administer justice,” the Chief Justice said.  

“The episode was an example of how bureaucratic control of the administrative functions of the judiciary can undermine the need of the judicial institution to be insulated from political control,” he added. 

Anthony Smellie UCCI Cayman Islands

Cayman Islands Chief Justice Anthony Smellie at the 50-50 Conference. – Photo: Patrick Brendel
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