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St. Kitts and Nevis (country profile)

ST. KITTS AND NEVIS (Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis) Ann L. Griffiths 1. History and Development of Federalism The islands of St. Kitts (168 km2) and Nevis (93 km2) are located in the Lesser Antilles chain of islands in the Eastern Caribbean. They are separated by a channel of just over three kilometres. The islands were historically inhabited first by the Sibonay who arrived approximately 2,000 years ago from Central America. They were followed by the Arawak and then the Caribs who both came north from South America. The first European to record the presence of the islands was Christopher Columbus in November 1493. He named the islands San Cristobel (St. Christopher), after his patron saint, and Santa Maria de las Nieves (Nevis) because the island’s mountains reminded him of the snow-capped peaks in Europe. Although the Spanish claimed the islands, they never settled on them, and in 1623 St. Christopher became the first British territory in the West Indies. Nevis was colonized by the British in 1628. French settlers arrived on the islands in the 1620s, and the two settler colonies made the native Caribs their common enemy, ensuring that the Caribs were either killed or fled the island. Until the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht when the French gave up their claims to Saint Christophe, there was intermittent fighting between the British and French settlers on the islands. After the French left, the colony officially became St. Christopher (shortened to St. Kitts). The Treaty of Versailles (1783) made the islands wholly British. Recognizing the importance of regional cooperation and unity, the British always favoured governing their island colonies jointly so there is a history of federal or cooperative arrangements in the eastern Caribbean. Beginning in 1671 St. Kitts and Nevis were joined with other islands in the area in the Leeward Caribbee Islands Government. In an attempt at federation, the Leeward Islands (consisting of Antigua, Montserrat and St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla) were made a single administrative unit in 1871 and St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla were joined as a unit in the Leeward Islands Federation in 1882. Under this arrangement the colonies shared a Governor and a Supreme Court (shared also with the Windward Islands), but had separate legislatures. This arrangement lasted until 1956 when St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla became a separate colony. Britain continued to push for a larger federation of its colonies in the West Indies. In January 1958 the Federation of the West Indies came into existence after more than 10 years of talks. The federation consisted of 10 British colonies, each made up of a number of islands in the Caribbean. The 10 colonies were Barbados, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands (Antigua, Montserrat, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent). (The Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands became part of the federation somewhat later.) The federation was headed by a Governor-General who took office 3 January 1958. Federal elections were held in March 1958 and were won by the West Indies Federal Labour Party which formed the government, provisionally located in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In 1959 a conference was held in London to discuss constitutional reform in the Leeward Islands. It was agreed that from 1 January 1960, the islands would become autonomous units within the Federation of the West Indies. The British government agreed to appoint an administrator in each territory as head of government and abolish the position of Governor of the Leeward Islands. The federation quickly ran into conflict—indeed, it appeared unable to agree even on where the capital would be permanently located. Inter-governmental committees were established in 1960 to discuss problems relating to the establishment of a customs union, the federal power of taxation, and the basis for political representation in the federal government. Jamaica was increasingly unhappy with its membership in the federation—in particular with the proposals to establish a customs union and increase the federal government’s power to levy taxes. As the largest unit of the federation, Jamaica feared losing control over its own development to the federal government. A conference was held in London in May-June 1961 to outline the details of the constitution of the federation after its independence from Britain. Jamaica agreed to the details only after its concerns had been met. With an agreement in place, the British government agreed that it would grant independence to the Federation of the West Indies on 31 May 1962. In Jamaica, however, a referendum to decide on the colony’s continued membership in the federation was held in September 1961. The result was a vote against remaining, and by the end of 1961 Jamaica had made plans to leave. Jamaica’s departure made the constitutional arrangements negotiated in London unworkable. It was clear that terms would have to be re-negotiated. Any new arrangement would need the participation of Trinidad and Tobago—as the largest remaining colony—which, by the end of 1961, was not certain. The Federation of the West Indies was dissolved on 31 May 1962, the date Britain had planned to give it its independence. Eight members of the Federation—the Windward and Leeward Islands and Barbados—briefly flirted with the idea of forming another federation but did not negotiate such an arrangement. St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla became a state in voluntary association with Britain in February 1967 as a first stage toward independence. Anguilla was resentful of the domination of St. Kitts and eventually left the arrangement. A constitutional conference was held in London in December 1982 to iron out the final details of the independence of St. Kitts and Nevis. Independence was achieved on 19 September 1983. Dr. Kennedy Simmonds of the People’s Action Movement (PAM) was the first Prime Minister of the independent St. Kitts and Nevis. 2. Constitutional Provisions Relating to Federalism The British colonial legacy is evident in the Westminster system of government adopted by St. Kitts and Nevis. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis is a parliamentary democracy within the British Commonwealth. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, and is represented on the islands by a Governor-General. The constitution came into force on 23 June 1983. The provisions of the constitution that affect the parameters of federalism are as follows. The constitution establishes a federal entity consisting of two constituent units—the island of St. Kitts and the island of Nevis. The federal system established by the constitution is asymmetrical in that only Nevis is endowed with its own government (the Nevis Island Assembly (NIA)) headed by the Nevis Island Administration led by a Premier and located in Charlestown (s. 102). St. Kitts does not have a government which represents only the interests of the island. This means that Nevis has a say in national affairs—and the affairs of St. Kitts—through its Representatives in Parliament, but the reverse is not true as St. Kitts does not have a say in affairs relating solely to Nevis. The division of power between the federal government and the constituent unit (in this case only Nevis receives jurisdiction as a constituent unit) is weighted in favour of Nevis. Section 106(1) sets out matters falling into the exclusive jurisdiction of the Nevis Island Administration. The Administration has jurisdiction over the following within the island of Nevis: airports and seaports; education; extraction and processing of minerals; fisheries; health and welfare; labour; land and buildings appropriated to the use of the government; and licensing of imports and exports (s. 106(1)(a-h)). This power is somewhat limited by Section 106(2)(b) which states that the NIA cannot take any action that relates to issues of national concern without the concurrence of the Prime Minister, or take any action that “is inconsistent with the general policy of the Government as signified by the Prime Minister in a written communication to the Premier”. The only powers specified in the constitution that are exclusively in the jurisdiction of the federal government as they relate to Nevis are external affairs and defence (s. 37(4)). The federal government can, however, make laws relating to other matters with respect to Nevis, if the NIA has requested or consented to these provisions (s. 37(3)). The federal Parliament, located in Basseterre in St. Kitts, is unicameral and consists of a National Assembly. Section 26(1)(a), in accordance with Section 50 which establishes the Constituency Boundaries Commission, sets out the rules regulating the number of Representatives elected to Parliament. As the Assembly stands, there are 11 elected Representatives—8 for St. Kitts and 3 for Nevis. The constitution does not specify how these Representatives are to be elected, but by tradition the country utilizes the British first-past-the-post electoral system, rather than proportional representation. Despite the fact that the Parliament is unicameral, the constitution makes provision for the existence of Senators in St. Kitts and Nevis. Section 26(2) states that there shall be “three or such greater number (not exceeding two-thirds of the number of Representatives) [of Senators] as may be prescribed by Parliament”. Senators are appointed as specified by Section 26(1)(b) in accordance with Section 30, and they sit in the National Assembly. Unlike the tradition in many other federations, representation in the Senate is not based on geographic or regional representation (although this may sometimes occur). One-third of the Senators are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, and the others are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister (s. 30(1)(a-b)). The constitution does not specifically outline federal financial arrangements, i.e., by what means the central government and NIA can raise revenue. In terms of the NIA, the constitution only states (in s. 108(1)) that “all revenues … raised or received by the Administration … shall be paid into and form a fund styled the Nevis Island Consolidated Fund”. Section 108(2) states that the provisions relating to finance as applied to the national government also apply to the NIA. Chapter VI, “Finance”, specifies the process of expenditures of public funds and provisions for the auditing of public accounts. Section 110(1) states that the proceeds of all “takes” collected in St. Kitts and Nevis under any law are to be shared between the federal government and the Nevis Island Administration based on population. The share going to the NIA, however, is subject to deductions (s. 110(2)), such as the cost of common services and debt charges, as determined by the Governor-General (s. 110(3)) on the advice of the Prime Minister who can also take advice from the Premier of Nevis (s. 110(4)). Like most other federations, the constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis contains procedures for the resolution of constitutional disputes. Section 97 states that any question as to the interpretation of the constitution can be referred by the lower courts to the High Court, and appeals can be made to the Court of Appeal or Her Majesty in Council. Section 112 states, however, that the High Court, to the exclusion of any other court, has “original jurisdiction in any dispute between the Administration and the Government”. There are a number of steps to be taken before the constitution can be amended. A bill to alter any of the provisions of the constitution must receive at least the support of two-thirds of all Representatives in the National Assembly (s. 38(2)). As well, there must be a period of at least 90 days between the first and second reading of the bill (s. 38(3)(a)). Finally, before any bill to amend the constitution can be signed by the Governor-General it must also be approved in a referendum by not less than two-thirds of all votes cast on the island of St. Kitts and two-thirds of the votes cast on the island of Nevis (s. 38(3)(b)). The constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis includes a number of interesting provisions, including a section (s. 6) on protection from slavery or forced labour, and a long section (s. 8) on the protection from deprivation of property. In terms of federalism, however, there is one special provision which should be mentioned—the section that discusses the separation of Nevis from St. Kitts. Section 113(1) states that “the Nevis Island Legislature may provide that the island of Nevis shall cease to be federated with the island of Saint Christopher and accordingly that this Constitution shall no longer have affect in the island of Nevis”. In effect, this is a provision for unilateral secession. A bill proposing to separate Nevis from the federation must be passed by at least two-thirds of the elected members of the Nevis Island Assembly (s. 113(2)). After a bill has been passed, it must be approved in a referendum on Nevis by two-thirds of all votes cast (s. 113(2)(b)). “A full and detailed proposal for the future constitution of the island of Nevis” must be presented to the Nevis Island Assembly at least six months before the referendum, and be made available to the public at least 90 days before the referendum (s. 113(2)(c)). 3. Recent Political Dynamics A general election was held in St. Kitts and Nevis on 6 March 2000. The Labour Party, led by Dr. Denzil Douglas, was re-elected with 64.2% of the votes cast, and on 7 March Dr. Douglas was sworn in as Prime Minister for his second consecutive term. The Labour Party increased its representation in Parliament by winning all eight seats in St. Kitts. In Nevis, the Concerned Citizens Movement retained the two seats it had held since 1995, and the Nevis Reformation Party retained its one seat. Both the Labour Party and the Concerned Citizens Movement campaigned on the basis of a promise of enhanced relations between Nevis and the national government, and resolved to pursue greater cooperation. The threat of secession has been a persistent one in St. Kitts and Nevis, and secession has been a longstanding and divisive issue. Indeed, the inclusion of the provision for secession in the constitution caused the Labour Party (which was not in power at the time) to walk out of the constitutional discussions in London in 1982 and refuse to sign the final document. The most recent chapter in the matter of the secession of Nevis occurred in 1998. On 10 August 1998, a referendum was held on Nevis on the question of secession. A majority of votes cast were in favour of secession—61.7%—but this was less than the two-thirds necessary to secede. It is interesting to note, however, that only 58% of registered voters on the island of Nevis cast a ballot in the referendum. The federal government has established several commissions and committees in an attempt to deal with the threat of secession. A Constitutional Review Commission (the Phillips Commission) was created in 1995. A Constitutional Task Force was given a mandate in 1999 to look at constitutional reform based on the 1998 Report of the Phillips Commission, and to carry out public consultations. Since the 1998 referendum the governing Labour Party has indicated its willingness to forge new arrangements in order to keep Nevis in the federation. On 18 April 2000, Prime Minister Douglas and Nevis Premier Vance Amory met to discuss ways to improve the working relationship between the Nevis Island Administration and the national government. They now meet on a regular basis. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis provides a clear example of a paradoxical global trend. Thus, at the same time that Nevis is threatening to secede and create an even smaller sovereign political unit, the federation is increasingly cooperating with other islands in the region in the recognition that the pressures of modern economics demand larger political and economic units. Thus, St. Kitts and Nevis is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). One of the main achievements of the OECS—which consists of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines—has been the establishment of a single monetary currency, the Eastern Caribbean dollar. The OECS and CARICOM have been establishing common institutions such as the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), the Eastern Caribbean Home Mortgage Bank, the Eastern Caribbean Institute of Bankers, the Eastern Caribbean Currency Authority, the Eastern Caribbean Securities Exchange (ECSE), the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre (CAREC), the Education Reform Unit, the Caribbean Court of Justice, and the Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL). As well, the OECS has been considering proposals for passport-free travel among the members, harmonization of tax and fiscal systems, and the creation of a customs union. The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis shares the economic problems common to small island states. The economy was historically based on the cultivation and production of sugar, and it was labour shortages in this industry that justified the use of slaves brought from Africa (until Britain abolished slavery in 1833). The sugar industry is, however, currently in dire straits. The country’s small size prevents large-scale cultivation of sugar and thus it cannot compete with larger Central or Latin American countries. As well, labour costs are high, it is too far from major markets (especially the United States) and its domestic market is too small. Another major hindrance to continued economic growth has been the destruction caused by several devastating hurricanes in recent years. The government has attempted to overcome the country’s difficulties in the globalized economy by emphasizing the service sector—including finance, tourism and information technology. Nevis in particular has tried to sell itself as an international financial centre, although this has been hampered by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) listing St. Kitts and Nevis as a country it considers to be practising “harmful” tax policies and as a “non-cooperative jurisdiction” in the prevention of money laundering. As is the case elsewhere, the economic success or failure of the country will have major repercussions on the continuation of St. Kitts and Nevis as a federation. 4. Sources for Further Information James Ferguson, Eastern Caribbean: A Guide to People, Politics and Culture, New York: Interlink Books, 1997.