The Labour Party government used its parliamentary majority on Tuesday to pass the controversial Barbuda Land (Amendment) Bill 2017, even as it admitted that parts of the proposed legislation were illegal.
The bill seeks to allow Barbudans to have individual ownership of land which has traditionally been communally held. However, that freehold ownership would be restricted to individuals born on Barbuda or whose parents, or a parent, were.
The exclusion of Antiguans from land ownership in Barbuda – Barbudans can own land in Antigua – was first raised by government MP Sir Robin Yearwood when debate on the bill started on Thursday in the Lower House.
Sir Robin had called for the government bill to be amended to allow Antiguans to benefit, but Prime Minister Gaston Browne had stated that now was not the time to go that route. According to Browne, the amendments are intended to give Barbudans a source of capital as a means of empowerment after the devastation of Hurricane Irma four months ago.
When debate resumed on Tuesday, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin, the attorney general, made it a point to register his dissatisfaction with the provision, calling it “discriminatory” and “illegal,” even as he offered his full support for the bill.
“We have made certain recommendations in our amendments, Mr. Speaker, but I want the whole world to hear me say this because I’m a lawyer first and foremost. I have concerns about the lands in Barbuda being distributed to Barbudans only.”
According to Benjamin: “Any Antiguan can challenge this law and succeed, because Antigua and Barbuda is a unitary state.” However, he stated that he was following the prime minister’s lead on the issue.
Baldwin Spencer, the opposition leader, in his contribution against the bill, argued that the fact that Antigua and Barbuda was one state did not mean it could not have a dual system. According to him, the separation of the islands by water created a peculiar situation.
The former prime minister referenced Hong Kong and China as his example, saying that it employed two separate systems. Hong Kong and Macau, former colonies of Britain and Portugal, are currently special administrative regions of mainland China under its “one country, two systems”constitutional principle. The two territories have their own administrative and economic systems, distinct from the mainland’s socialist leanings.