By Suzanne Koelega
THE HAGUE–St. Maarten’s law enforcement sector is in such a bad shape now that continuation is not justifiable and even irresponsible. St. Maarten cannot do without assistance. These conclusions of the Law Enforcement Council (Raad voor de Rechtshandhaving) are cause for concern in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament.
The Law Enforcement Council drafted a report titled The State of the Law Enforcement St. Maarten 2017 in April this year, which is an annual account of how the law enforcement sector on the island is doing in general. The document, which was recently released, has been sent to the Parliaments and the Ministers of Justice in the Kingdom.
The Council concluded that the law enforcement agencies that work to keep the island safe daily deserve the full attention of the St. Maarten government. The latter should make law enforcement a priority, which needs to be reflected in the annual budget and for which structural solutions are essential. Cooperation within the Kingdom is a prerequisite.
Since Hurricane Irma, the Dutch government has been assisting St. Maarten with police officers and prison personnel, the Council stated. “It is clear to everyone that St. Maarten could not have done without this assistance. The view in the community and in the Council is that St. Maarten cannot do without a form of assistance.”
Law enforcement is currently more in the picture because of the island’s reconstruction following Hurricane Irma. This provides opportunities for improvements, but one should not forget that the structural problems faced in the law enforcement system date back to before the hurricane, the Council noted.
Some steps to arrive at a structural improvement were made in 2017, but the vulnerability of St. Maarten’s law enforcement became visible in a “confronting manner” immediately after the hurricane. According to the Council, “extreme situations evolved in the area of maintaining public order and safety in the hours and days” after the hurricane.
“The core of law enforcement saw itself confronted with a situation for which it was totally not prepared,” stated the Council, which noted that only with a high improvising capacity and cooperation the law enforcement agencies established an approach that was needed under the extreme circumstances.
“With very limited means, the law enforcement agencies were able to control chaos and disorder after the necessary military and police assistance was provided by the other countries.” The Council was positive about the ability the local law enforcement officers have shown to work together with colleagues from Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands in an ad hoc, difficult situation. However, the fear is that the progress will cease once the Dutch police assistance currently still in place ends per September 2018.
The Council was not positive about the role the St. Maarten government played at the time of the hurricane. “Country St. Maarten has shown to be totally unprepared for a disaster of this calibre.” The Council noted that while it might not be possible to be totally prepared, people should be able to count on an infrastructure of support. “Preparation, disaster coordination and relief aid appeared far from optimal.”
The Council was critical of the late decision to invoke the state of emergency. “The authorised entity [the Prime Minister – Ed.] opted to declare the state of emergency in a very late stage, four days after the disaster. This, while there was cause to make use of this authority before the hurricane.”
Even though difficult to measure, the Council and many others found that the consequences for the legal order, the wellbeing of the people and the damage to the economy were “many times greater” than if the necessary preparations and timely decisions had taken place. The Council advised organisations within the law enforcement system and disaster coordination to evaluate their disaster management plans.
Structural attention of the St. Maarten government is required for law enforcement, and the St. Maarten Parliament needs to be kept abreast, so it can carry out its monitoring function. Where it pertains to financing, the Council noted that the structural payment arrears and delays in decision-taking have an adverse effect on the law enforcement system and stagnate further development.
According to the Council, law enforcement is an “essential part” of a solid reconstruction. This means that all stakeholders need to be aware of the importance of developing law enforcement. Without the full attention of government, the availability of sufficient financial means, policy-making and the answer to the question “where do we want to go?” the local government will not be able to independently secure law enforcement.
The St. Maarten government will face an even bigger challenge releasing funds for law enforcement in the current financial situation than before the hurricane. “If the funds were already lacking before the hurricane, they will surely not be in place at this time.”
The Daily Herald asked Members of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament André Bosman of the liberal democratic VVD party, Ronald van Raak of the Socialist Party (SP) and Antje Diertens of the Democratic Party D66 for a reaction to the report of the Law Enforcement Council.
Bosman would like to see the Plans of Approach in the justice area executed for once and for all with sufficient funds allocated in the budget. “St. Maarten has to understand that this is in its own interest. If asked, the Netherlands is most willing to assist. We provide expertise if that is necessary. We do so for all the countries in the Kingdom. However, the situation in St. Maarten has been so bad that we were left no choice than to provide assistance,” he said.
Van Raak said he found the conclusions in the report “confronting.” “But it also made me feel a bit sad. No progress was made and that shows the handling, or the lack thereof, on the part of the St. Maarten government. I hope that this report will result in more self-reflection.”
Bosman remarked that the neglect in law enforcement was not caused by Hurricane Irma, but long before that. “The point is that these basic provisions need to be in your budget as a country. The lack of attention for law enforcement has been playing for years. Evidently, the sense of urgency hasn’t gotten through. The systems are in place, but they are not given substance.”
Van Raak agreed with Bosman that it was up to St. Maarten to make the necessary investments in its law enforcement system. “The report indicates that it is a St. Maarten problem and that is where it needs to be solved. With the right plans in place, the Netherlands is willing to help, but it can’t be that we get the blame or that we are left holding the baby every time.”
Another point made by Van Raak concerned the use of reconstruction funds to strengthen law enforcement. “I find it peculiar that money to rebuild St. Maarten is used for law enforcement. These are funds to assist the people, to rebuild in a more sustainable way, to train the unemployed.”
MP Diertens said she considered it a positive matter that there was reflection regarding law enforcement. “D66 wants everyone to be able grow up, live and work in a safe society. That is why a good look needs to be taken at law enforcement and prosecution as part of St. Maarten’s reconstruction,” she said.