Commission of Inquiry Report Recommends Direct Rule by the UK Over BVI

With two top officials charged and making their first court appearance Thursday on cocaine and money laundering charges, British Virgin Islands Governor John Rankin pushed up the publication of a Commission of Inquiry Report that recommends partial suspension of the territory’s elected government and direct rule by the United Kingdom for at least two years.

A Commission of Inquiry Report released Friday recommends partial suspension of the BVI’s elected government and direct rule by the United Kingdom for at least two years. (Screenshot of report cover)

The BVI is a British territory governed under a dual system in which a UK-appointed governor is responsible for defense, policing, and security, while a locally elected administration is charged with other areas.

During a press conference Friday, Rankin said he was initially going to release the report in June, following discussions in London with UK ministers, the BVI government, and other political party leaders. With the arrest of BVI Premier Andrew Fahie and BVI Port Authority Director Oleavine Pickering Maynard Thursday, however, Rankin said it is now “in the overwhelming public interest” for the report to be released earlier.

The more than 900-page report, which focuses on allegations of high-level corruption within the BVI, “concludes that with limited exceptions, governance in areas under the control of Government Ministers is, at best, very poor, with principles such as openness and transparency not simply absent, but positively shunned. Proper procedures, checks, and balances are absent, or patently inadequate, or ignored or bypassed,” Rankin said.

Along with direct rule and an immediate review of the territory’s Constitution, recommendations in the report include putting an end to ‘open-ended discretionary powers’ held by public officials and investigations into a number of public contracts, including the BVI Airways and Elmore Stoutt High School wall projects.

Hearings held from April to November 2021 and led by retired judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom formed the basis of the report, which Rankin has stressed was not an “explicit” investigation into illegal drug trade or the BVI’s financial services sector. Still, in light of Fahie’s arrest, Rankin said the messages resonate and that the report is a “vital and hugely valuable contribution towards the achievement of better governance in the BVI,” which the report found that successive administrations have “sought to avoid.”

“He says that in terms of governance, the people of the BVI have been served very badly in recent years and that almost everywhere, the principles of good governance such as openness, transparency, and the rule of law are ignored. He concludes that it is highly likely that serious dishonesty may have taken place across a broad range of government and that there is information that a substantial number of elected officials may be involved. He makes recommendations for further investigations and possible criminal prosecution in several areas,” Rankin said during the press conference of Hickinbottom’s findings.

Further, unless the “most urgent and drastic steps are taken,” the situation – with elected officials “deliberately ignoring” the tenets of good governance will go on indefinitely, Hickinbottom said in the report.

Rankin said in the coming days, Amanda Milling, the UK’s Minister for the Overseas Territories, will be returning to the BVI to have discussions on the report and to determine a path forward.

In a separate statement Friday, acting BVI Premier and Minister of Finance Natalio D. Wheatley said he was concerned by the recommendation for direct British rule, which would put full authority in the territory’s governor.

“The benefit of representative democracy to the public is the understanding and responsiveness of their elected representatives to their challenges, who also serve as conduits of their views, especially on reforms,” Wheatley said. “The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at reforming and strengthening the systems of Government in the Virgin Islands. In my view, these can be achieved without the partial or full suspension of the Constitution in which direct rule would apply. The report’s recommended reforms, and also actions for the Governor to take up, are not mutually exclusive or contradictory to maintaining democratic governance in the Territory. Constitutional powers already exist under the constitution that can be exercised if necessary.”

Wheatley said what is more in the best interest of the BVI’s citizens is the development of a framework between the governor and government to “swiftly” implement the recommendations made in the report under a tight timetable without “resorting to direct rule.”

“These arrangements can be extended every 12 months until satisfactory progress is made. We already have some very good examples of good cooperation of this kind, including the Recovery to Development Agency and the Protocols for Effective Financial Management,” Wheatley said. “I urge you, the public, to read the report with an objective eye in terms of strengthening our systems of Government under a democratic framework of governance, as opposed to draconian measures that would set back the historical constitutional progress we have made as a people.”