PEOPLE & THINGS: Nationalism or parochialism?
No person shall be qualified to be elected as a member of the House of Assembly who . . . is, by virtue of his own act, under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power or state.
This excerpt from the Constitution of Barbados sits quietly in Sec. 44:1 (a) and is easily one of the least quoted sections of our fundamental law.
Over the years this section has been referred to so infrequently that this author, who studied constitutional law at the feet of the late Professor Ralph Carnegie, could perhaps be forgiven for once arguing that unlike Guyana and Jamaica, our Constitution did not speak to such issues.
The reality is, however, very different and one struggles to find a single independent Caribbean country that does not seek to jealously reserve membership in its parliament for citizens who are not loyal to any other power.
These sections have been central to contentious legal disputes in St Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and, more recently, Dominica, where this author was pilloried for arguing that this provision was “outdated and illogical”.
The opposition there argued that this statement warranted an apology which I can assure them will not be forthcoming. I do however hope that the ensuing discussion will provoke us Caribbean folk to exercise our often dormant intellects in search of the rationale and relevance of this provision in 2011.
These provisions originated simultaneously with the practice of articulating constitutions as an expression of nationhood. Hence the constitutions of two of the earliest states to be spawned from the British Empire (United States and Canada) contained express provisions to discourage their citizens from holding citizenship in any other country and moreover, prohibit persons who previously sought to acquire a foreign nationality from holding high office.
One assumes that the British would also have imposed similar obligations if they actually took the time to write a constitution or believed for one moment that a subject of His Majesty would have a desire to swear allegiance to a foreign power.
We however need to appreciate the context and way in which sovereignty and nationalism were perceived in the 1776, 1791 or indeed even 1947 when India was granted independence. In these times independence was often won by revolutionary efforts and war between states was always a distinct possibility.
As nations evolved in those days, a heavy emphasis was placed on the defence of the realm and pursuit of loyalty by any and all means. It is for these reasons that the Americans took the issue to the extreme by mandating that all naturalized citizens agree, “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince . . . [and] bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”.
As time has passed and circumstances have changed, these provisions have become more meaningless. However, new states in the Caribbean that were granted independence without revolutionary effort continued to enshrine similar provisions. Ironically these same states have voluntarily compromised their own sovereignty by entry into regional integration enterprises, trade agreements and organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
In the meantime, Caribbean nationals explored global opportunities that enhanced this region and often caused them to forge liaisons of a personal and professional nature with citizens of other nations which altered the way in which their citizenship is defined.
Therefore across the Caribbean, there are numerous variations on the theme of “national” caused by several legitimate circumstances that the individual might not necessarily have control over. In all of this the individual can always tell you what nationality they “go by” and this has more to do with what is in their heart as distinct from what is on their passport.
As for this constitutional provision, defenders argue it should remain because it was put there for a reason, or because we might go to war against each other. These defences would be humorous if these did not distract the process of governance as is the case in Dominica.
In such instances one is presumably intended to conclude that a prime minister of seven years’ standing is an entirely different and untrustworthy person overnight because he once held citizenship in another county. Arguably he becomes “less Dominican” now that such a discovery has been made?
Naturally this perplexes Barbadians who were led by an individual who was both a Barbadian and British citizen, but seemed Barbadian enough to represent us in Parliament for a quarter of a century.
If nothing else, these make for fascinating academic fodder. Former St Kitts and Nevis Attorney General Delano Bart assures us that the provisions are only meant to restrict people who obtain citizenship by their “own act”, which means that those who obtain citizenship by birth or marriage are not affected.
Lawyers, however, differ vastly since one interpretation suggest that naturalized British citizens are never affected – they do not swear an oath – while naturalized Americans are always affected since they always swear.
There is also the question of the relevance of the oath since one can swear today and renounce tomorrow, which our constitutions permit.
The “silliness” of these provisions is reflected in representatives such as Winston Gypsy Peters who held a United States passport while being an MP, turned it in, lost his seat for entirely different reasons, and subsequently won it again.
In all of this he is the same person, but the constitution presumes he is more Trinidadian now he is without a United States passport that he can simply apply for again when he is no longer interested in politics.
Thankfully we have never been preoccupied with such matters in Barbados and one presumes that we have had several MPs who held foreign passports for all types of reasons.
It is perhaps not a good thing when we honour laws more in the breach than in the observance; however if the laws are illogical, one can only hope that Parliament has the foresight to change them or we have the wisdom to ignore them.