Organisers say independence isn’t the issue, but local residents aren’t so sure.
The Cayman Islands is undergoing the latest re-examination of its governing relationship with the United Kingdom, following the approval of its Constitution by voters in 2009.
Local residents, both Caymanians and non-Caymanians, still have time to weigh in on the future of that relationship via a survey being distributed in print and on several Internet websites.
The survey made public last week, and which can be filled out by anyone in the world, is available on four different websites: www.ukoverseasterritories.readandcomment.com; www.ukincayman.fco.gov.ky; www.cabinetoffice.gov.ky; and www.surveymonkey.com. Printed copies of the survey were distributed in the Caymanian Compass newspaper on Friday, 28 October.
The survey asks 17 questions, including topics in six general areas of the UK-Cayman relationship. A few examples of those questions include: What are the main challenges in relation to economic development facing the Cayman Islands? What are the main challenges in relation to every day life facing the Cayman Islands? What are the main challenges in relation to politics and government facing the Cayman Islands?
Responses can be made online by posting comments, by emailing the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office or by mailing the Overseas Territories Directorate. The address is King Charles Street, London, UK SW1A 2AH. Respondents are not required to give their names, but they may do so if they wish. On the Cabinet Office website, individuals are also asked if they are registered voters in the Cayman Islands.
The deadline for responses on the survey is 4 November – Friday.
What’s at stake?
Although Cayman’s Constitution was finalised relatively recently, the last UK-led effort at modernising governance in its territories started in 1999 and Britain’s government is seeking again to “determine the priorities that will guide the revision and updating” of that relationship. The UK hopes to have a new ‘white paper’ proposal based party on advice and suggestions it receives from the overseas territories by early next year.
Cayman’s top official is still the governor, who is appointed by Her Majesty, the Queen of England. However, the new Constitution gives the locally elected government heretofore unseen decision-making and advisory powers related to security and international relations matters – as well as additional internal governance powers within the Cayman Islands Cabinet.
According to the chairman of the committee in charge of collecting and evaluating information gleaned from the survey, the latest governance review does not set independence for the overseas territories as its goal. However, Lemuel Hurlston said it is doubtful that Cayman will gain too many new governance concessions from the United Kingdom without taking that step.
“The British government has made it clear that this is the next step,” Hurlston told a group of about 20 people in the audience at West Bay’s Sir John Cumber Primary School last week. “They’ll tweak it [the Constitution], but they’re not going to advance it to any other stage. But as long as the Caymanian people express their wish to remain British, that’s an option. Independence is not going to be forced on anyone.”
After compiling all the survey responses, Hurlston says his committee would submit a report to Premier McKeeva Bush who would use the information during overseas territories consultative meetings in the UK to be held toward the end of the year. Hurlston says he hopes that information would be made public at some stage, although he believed that was unlikely prior to the overseas territories conference.
Given Hurlston’s comments, it would seem that any further major governance changes Cayman wishes to make without seeking independence will be few.
Although the United Nations has previously expressed a different view on future governance options for remaining overseas territories, UK officials have clearly stated that going independent or remaining a territory are the only two options it will allow.
According to a 2008 position paper written by the British government on the subject, the United Kingdom’s policy is not to agree to integration of former British territories into the country, and it is doubtful Cayman would agree to such a move in any case.
A third option, according to the United Nations, does exist for overseas territories: Free association. However, the UK doesn’t recognise that status and has said it would not grant that to any remaining territories.
“The concept of free association, as defined by the UN General Assembly, would mean that the territory itself would draw up its constitution free from United Kingdom involvement,” the 2008 position paper read. “The UK would retain all responsibility for the territory, but would not be able to ensure that it had the powers necessary to meet its responsibilities for the territories.
“This is not a position the United Kingdom is willing to put itself in.”
In the view of the British government, previous UN resolutions on the topic of territorial governance are not legally binding and UK representatives to the UN have never voted in favour of them.
Constitutional scholars, like Dr. Carlyle Corbin of the US Virgin Islands, believe the UK has “misconstrued” the definition of free association.
“Free association does not require these kinds of commitments or contingent liabilities,” Corbin says, adding that Bermuda is the remaining British territory that comes closest to achieving a free associative state in its constitution. However, Corbin notes the UK-appointed governor there still retains reserve powers which can be enacted at any time – essentially overthrowing the power of the locally-elected government.
“[Bermuda’s constitution] certainly doesn’t rise to the level of self-determination [sought by the United Nations],” Corbin says.
The relatively short survey period in Cayman – which ends Friday – as well as the international nature of the potential responses that might be received has led to concerns from some local residents.
These were expressed last week at the public meeting in West Bay.
“Caymanians are now a minority,” said Kenneth Ebanks. “It is quite conceivable that [survey] opinions will be expressed and shared by non-Caymanians.”
Hurlston told the audience that Cayman was now home to more than 100 nationalities and that those individuals were part of the community while they live here. “It’s better to have these opinions than not have them,” he said.
Other residents who attended the meeting had no problem with expatriate residents filling out surveys, but wondered why people outside of the country were allowed to participate.
“How useful is this survey going to be if it is not going to include the view of the people in the territory?” one woman asked.
Pastor Alson Ebanks, a member of Mr. Hurlston’s committee, said it was impossible to entirely control who responded to surveys on the Internet, which was why the question about registered voters was added to the Cabinet office online survey.
Karin Thompson, another committee member, urged the West Bay group to participate and encourage others to submit as many responses as they could.
“It’s the only way we can have our voices heard,” Thompson said.