March 6th, 2014
In recent weeks, issues related to my eligibility to serve in the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have been raised in some quarters. I was loath to respond to many of the baseless and wildly erroneous claims that were circulating regarding my citizenship and allegiance to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Indeed, I privately likened the claims against me to those made by the so-called “birthers” in the United States, who, despite ample legal and factual evidence to the contrary, continue to question H.E. Barack Obama’s constitutional right to serve as President of his country.
However, some Parliamentary members of the opposition New Democratic Party have recently decided to give credence to these false claims, and have also raised questions about my eligibility to serve in my current capacity. It is regrettable that, almost six months after they welcomed me into the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines without objection, some members of the Opposition have allowed themselves to be misled on this issue by fringe elements and Internet crackpots. It is even more unfortunate that opposition parliamentarians with extensive legal training have been so completely bamboozled by the mindless patter of the uninformed chatterati. I listened with dismay to a radio programme on 27th February, in which opposition members, with no knowledge of the facts, and precious little understanding of the applicable law, made a series of false statements that would have confused Vincentians not only about my situation, but may have had a chilling effect on other, similarly situated individuals who may have an ambition to serve their country in a similar capacity.
In light of these recent flights of fancy by otherwise credible individuals – as opposed to the earlier rants of uninformed partisan zealots – I now feel compelled to set out the facts and the law related to my citizenship and allegiance.
I. I Am, and Have Always Been, a Citizen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
I was born on the 12th of June 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to parents Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Sonia Gonsalves of Jamaica. According to the Constitution of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, I became a Vincentian citizen – automatically – from the moment of my birth. Section 92 of the Vincentian Constitution states:
Persons born outside Saint Vincent on or after 27th October 1979.
92. A person born outside Saint Vincent after the commencement of this Constitution shall become a citizen at the date of his birth if, at that date, his father or mother is a citizen otherwise than by virtue of this section or section 90(3) of this Constitution.
It is important to note that persons born anywhere in the world to a Vincentian parent become citizens automatically and as of right. There is no registration process or application for such citizenship. I became a citizen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines “at the date of [my] birth.”
Subsequently, I have lived in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; attended primary and secondary school in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; worked and paid taxes in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; and purchased property in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. My Vincentian citizenship cannot be questioned.
II. I Am Constitutionally Qualified to be a Senator in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Section 25 of the Constitution of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines sets out the “Qualifications for representatives and Senators” in the following manner:
25. (1) Subject to the provisions of section 26 of this Constitution, a person shall be qualified to be elected as a representative if, and shall not be so qualified unless, he-
a. is a Commonwealth citizen of the age of twenty-one years or upwards
b. has resided in Saint Vincent for a period of twelve months immediately before the date of his nominations for
election or is domiciled and resident in Saint Vincent at that date: and
c. is able to speak and, unless incapacitated by blindness or the physical cause, to read the English language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the House.
(2) Subject to the provisions of section 26 of this Constitution, a person shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a Senator if, and shall not be so qualified unless, he is a Commonwealth citizen of the age of twenty-one years or upwards.
Some of the “birthers,” in their ignorance of the applicable law, have sought to question the issue of the length of my residence or domicile in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines prior to my Senatorial appointment. However, thankfully, mainstream opposition members have steered clear of this particular red herring.
I hope that, beyond the fringe elements, all involved will be satisfied that I am old enough, free of the proscribed incapacities, and sufficiently literate to qualify for Senatorial appointment in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
III. The Fact that I was Born in the United States Does Not Disqualify Me From Serving as a Senator
Both the fringe “birthers” and some mainstream opposition elements have latched onto the fact of my birth in the United States as somehow disqualifying me from Senatorial appointment. In this quest, they have sought to fabricate all sorts of pseudo-legal concepts that have no basis in fact or the considerable body of established judicial opinion on this subject. Listening to the New Times radio programme on 27th February, I was shocked to hear learned lawyers pronouncing definitively on these issues after being advised – on-the-fly – by bloggers and intermittent text messages on the status of the law. Allow me to highlight relevant areas of the law on this issue.
Section 26 of the Constitution of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (“Disqualifications for Representatives and Senators”) states, in pertinent part:
26. (1) No person shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a Representative or Senator (hereinafter in this section referred to as a member) if he-
a. is by virtue of his own act, under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power or state,
This provision is a common one in Commonwealth constitutions, both in the Caribbean and beyond. It is settled law that the incident of an individual’s birth in a foreign country is not “his own act” sufficient to disqualify him from being a representative or senator. Since a child cannot chose where he or she is born, the constitutional caveat of “by virtue of his own act” seeks to exempt such individuals from disqualification. Section 26(1)(a) of the Vincentian Constitution, like all such provisions in other constitutions, is designed to disqualify those persons who voluntarily swear an oath of allegiance to a foreign power, as is the case of those adults who acquire citizenship by naturalization.
Further, recent case law is also clear that the possession of passports, drivers licenses, and other “ordinary incidents of citizenship” by natural-born citizens does not disqualify them from Senatorial appointment or election. Indeed, the August 2013 judgment of Hewitt v. Rivers in the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands is instructive. In that case, the Hon. Tara Rivers, a Dual citizen of the Cayman Islands and the United States, was elected to parliament and appointed Minister of Education, Employment and Gender Affairs. Minister Rivers was born in the United States, attended university in the United States, and held a valid United States passport. Her opponent in the elections sought to disqualify her under section 62(1)(a) of the Cayman Islands Constitution, which is identical to section 26(1)(a) of the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Constitution.
Chief Justice Anthony Smellie, QC ruled that Minister Rivers was not disqualified under the Cayman Islands Constitution. He recognised that Minister Rivers’ birth in the United States was not a voluntary act sufficient to merit disqualification. Further, the Chief Justice stated that:
The intention of the words is not to ensure that those legislators who may happen to hold other citizenship by birth, do not enjoy any of the rights and privileges which are the ordinary incidents of such citizenship.
The Chief Justice also opined that the Constitution and legislature of the Cayman Islands:
must now be taken as wishing to reflect the equality and freedom of all Caymanians including those born in other countries, to participate in the fullest expression of political life even when this is balanced against the needs of the society to have competent and loyal representatives in its Legislative Assembly.
The judgment of Hewitt v. Rivers is freely available online, in its entirety, at http://www.judicial.ky/wp- content/uploads/publications/newsletters/130809-JudgmentHewittvRiversetal.pdf. I continue to marvel at the ability of those who, by virtue of hyper-partisanship or simple laziness, take to the Internet to make pronouncements that are so easily refuted by preexisting, publicly-available, online information. While it may be too much to ask the fringe elements and “birthers” to read all 57 pages of Chief Justice Smellie’s cogent analysis, it is my sincere hope that the legal luminaries in the opposition New Democratic Party will take the time to absorb its implications before making further definitive pronouncements – particularly via the media – on the basis of uninformed blogs and text messages.
I am sure that, having read that judgment and the cases to which it refers, even the most partisan lawyer will concede that the fact of my birth in the United States does not disqualify me in any way from serving in my current Senatorial capacity.
IV. Despite Being Constitutionally Eligible to Serve As Senator, I Took the Personal Decision to Renounce My United States Citizenship Prior to My Appointment
From a purely legal standpoint, it is crystal clear that neither my birth in the United States, nor my resulting United States citizenship, served to disqualify me from serving as a Senator in the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I feel compelled to reemphasise this point, because the recent loose and reckless pronouncements on this issue may have the unfortunate consequence of deterring other foreign-born Vincentians from offering themselves in public service. For a nation like Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, whose Diaspora is larger than its local population, such a chilling effect would be particularly distressing and counterproductive.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that my foreign birth posed no legal impediment to my appointment and service as a Senator, I took a personal and private decision to renounce my United States citizenship. I submitted the requisite formal paperwork at the United States Embassy in Barbados, conduced the necessary interview with Embassy officials, and paid the US$450 fee. All of this was done prior to my taking the oath of office to serve as a senator in the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
To be clear: I am not a citizen of the United States of America.
I took that decision as a mark of my personal and unambiguous commitment to public service in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The decision was compelled not by law, but by my own conscience and my private determination about what I consider to be the best way for me to serve the Government and people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
At no point have I ever trumpeted my decision to renounce my United States citizenship, or sought to gain any political currency from the renunciation. The decision was private, personal, and not motivated by any political calculus. Further, I did not want to create the impression in the minds of other foreign-born Vincentians that such a decision was a necessary prerequisite to senatorial or representational service in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I only disclose my renunciation of United States citizenship at this point in an attempt to dispel the clouds of confusion that the ill- informed and ill-intentioned seek to form around my name.
To sum up, I am, and have always been, a citizen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I am qualified to serve as Senator in the Parliament of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. None of the Constitutional disqualifications to such service apply to me. Additionally, despite the claims of many to the contrary, I am not a citizen of the United States of America. I formally renounced that citizenship prior to taking office as Senator and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Commerce and Information Technology of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
In the immediate aftermath of my appointment as Senator and Minister, I commented privately that I was pleasantly surprised that opposition politicians were sufficiently mature to avoid the cheap tricks and jingoism of their base and fringe elements. However, much like the “birther” hysteria temporarily consumed more mature elements of the United States Republican Party, so too have elements from the distant fringes of our own Vincentian society managed to co-opt and lead individuals who should be expected to know better.
It is my sincere hope that this rather lengthy missive can be the last word on this unfortunate distraction. I confess that I had been tempted to stay silent, and to see if anyone would be persuaded by the fringe elements to challenge my appointment in a court of law. However, having come to office on a pledge to eschew petty political distractions, and in a time of reconstruction and nation-building in the wake of the Christmas floods, I am making these explanations and disclosures in the genuine desire to move on to more productive pursuits and mature political discourse.
Camillo M. Gonsalves
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Commerce and Information Technology
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to email@example.com.