By SIR RONALD SANDERS
THE global US television company, Cable News Network (CNN), broadcast the first part of a programme on February 8, alleging the sale of Venezuelan passports to Iraqis and others through the country’s Embassy in Baghdad. The programme suggested that it is possible that terrorists might have been among those alleged to have bought passports.
Interestingly, at least one agency that facilitated the Venezuelan citizenship and residence programme, posted a statement on its website that “due to the turmoil, danger and unreliability within Venezuela, the nationality and passport programme has been cancelled until further notice”.
This development occurred days after the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced in Parliament that his government had adopted a new policy, restricting the categories of persons to whom diplomatic and official passports would be issued. Amongst the principles enshrined in the policy is that the names of the holders of all diplomatic and official passports would be tabled in parliament annually, made public and the information shared with all countries with which Antigua and Barbuda has diplomatic relations.
In the same week - the day after the Antigua and Barbuda announcement and one day before the CNN programme - there were protests in Dominica against the activities of the government, including claims of selling diplomatic passports. The protests culminated in a clash between crowds and the police in full battle dress and weapons, with snipers on key rooftops.
These developments bring fresh focus to the Citizenship by Investment Programmes (CBIPs) operated by many countries around the world in one form or another. The countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Malta and five countries in the Caribbean - Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts-Nevis and St Lucia.
As I have pointed out in previous commentaries on the CBIP issue, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizenship by investment programmes or with their merit as a development tool; it is the rigour of their implementation that is important. And it is such rigour upon which all countries should insist.
Clearly, that is the course that the government of Antigua and Barbuda has chosen to take with its publicly declared policy which has been shared with other governments and published in full. There is good reason to do so, not only for Antigua and Barbuda, but for all non-European Union and G20 members which are focusing attention on CBIPs, ostensibly on the basis that they could be avenues for facilitating terrorists and criminals.
If the governments of these countries believe that CBIPs are important to revenue generation so as to maintain and advance economic and social development, the more transparent they are the better. No other country should have doubts about them, not in a world where almost everything is capable of cross-border movement. And, while transparency is crucially important - and that is the commitment that the government of Antigua and Barbuda has made with its new policy - an intense vetting of potential citizenship and passport recipients is absolutely vital.
It should be noted that many Caribbean Embassies, and certainly the Antigua and Barbuda ones, do not issue passports of any kind. All passport applications and renewals are sent to the passport offices in their countries.
Some Caribbean countries operate stringent vetting processes for CBIPs, including referrals to Interpol and the Joint Regional Communications Centre based in Barbados, that is connected to agencies in the EU, Canada, the US and the UK. Any rejections by these bodies on the basis of criminal activity or any links to terrorists or terrorism result in the disqualification of applicants. All the countries in the Caribbean should follow this pattern; by doing so, they would strengthen the confidence of other nations in the integrity of their system and give them comfort in not applying visa requirements on all their passport holders. In this way, the value of the CBIP to their economies will endure and their native people will have reassurance in the worth of their own passports. Politically that is important, as at least one Caribbean country has experienced.
Those who believe that there is short-term gain in pitching the cost of citizenship by investment at a low sum, or by accepting applicants despite question marks from vetting agencies, run the grave risk of other nations slapping visa requirements on their passport holders and, thus, rendering their CBIPs useless.
Within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, there have been commentaries and editorials in the media that have expressed concern about the CBIP because, it is said that persons who qualify for citizenship and a passport in one of the CIP States, have access to all CARICOM countries. Theoretically, that is true. In practice, of course, it is not. Native nationals of member-states of CARICOM countries have no freedom of movement within CARICOM, except for specifically designated categories, and even in those, unless there is a bilateral agreement between states, those categories are, regretfully, not respected. And, even business people and investors from member-states of CARICOM find it difficult to establish business in other CARICOM countries.
They have to satisfy national laws and national requirements: unfortunately, very few have been able to do so in the history of CARICOM.
But, if CBIP recipients were able to invest in CARICOM countries, in addition to the one in which they received citizenship, there should be nothing wrong with that; indeed, it should be welcome. And, if CBIP recipients were to be unacceptable “subject to public interest considerations”, they could be denied entry or the right to remain in the country concerned, in the same way that this principle applies to native nationals of a CARICOM country.
This “subject to public interest considerations” provision was clearly set out by the Caribbean Court of Justice in the landmark Shanique Myrie case in 2013.
The global attention that passports are receiving, especially diplomatic passports, requires high standards of vetting and transparency to maintain confidence in them. Thankfully, the government of Antigua and Barbuda is prepared to show the way.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sironaldsanders.com