St. Eustatius should think twice before changing its constitutional status, said Professor Arjen van Rijn of University of the Netherlands Antilles (UNA) during a town hall meeting on constitutional affairs at Ernest van Putten Youth Centre on May 14. The meeting was organised by the Island Government to talk with the community about constitutional developments since the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles on October 10, 2010, after which Statia became a special public entity of The Netherlands. The negative aspects and how these are addressed, as well as the positive aspects of the new status were highlighted, while attention was also given to the various services which have been transferred to the Dutch government and the efficiency thereof.
A large crowd had turned out for the evening, which also comprised a panel discussion with participation of Island Governor Gerald Berkel, Commissioner Koos Sneek, Island Council Members Reuben Merkman (Democratic Party, DP), Millicent Lijfrock-Marsdin (independent) Reginald Zaandam (United People’s Coalition, UPC) and Franklin Brown (St. Eustatius Empowerment Party, STEP) and Professor Van Rijn.
Van Rijn said the issue at hand was of great importance for the present and future development of the island. He predicted that the audience would not always be happy with his opinions as a constitutional professional. He started with a historic overview, stating that Statia had come in a difficult situation after 76.6 per cent of the people voted for becoming part of a restructured Netherlands Antilles in the April 2005 referendum. However, none of the other islands wanted to stay aboard the Netherlands Antilles. In the end, the Island Council acknowledged the outcome of the referendums on the other islands and declared its willingness to reach a mutual agreement, which led to Bonaire, Statia and Saba being integrated into The Netherlands as public entities. The current status will be evaluated in 2015, which may result in an adaptation of the status, if there are reasons to do so.
So far, so good, said Van Rijn, but how about the island’s right to self-determination? UN-Resolution 1514 and both UN Human Rights Treaties state that: “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” There are several ways to reach paradise, Van Rijn pointed out but self-determination is not restricted to the option of independence. “Any status is acceptable, as long as exercising an option is the result of free choice. This is an essential element in the UN doctrine and in the legal discussions.” “The UN has explicitly recognised a referendum as one of the means of achieving self-determination; but, a referendum is not obligatory. Also other democratic means can be valid,” he said. “Important is also that the right of self-determination is a unilateral right, only to be exercised by the former colonial entity and not by the former mother country,” according to Van Rijn. Despite the question whether the referendum on Statia was a suitable instrument to reflect the will of the people in 2005, the outcome was ignored by the people’s representatives, researchers stated in a study published in 2011. They said it was highly doubtful that the decision of the representatives can be qualified as being in compliance with the principles of free choice. “At this point, it cannot be concluded that the people of Statia have freely determined their status,” Van Rijn said. Zaandam came to the same conclusion in a meeting in April 2010 in the Second Chamber. He requested a referendum to be held before 10-10-10. “Popular unrest did not occur and, therefore, it might have been argued that the representatives had acted in conformity with the wishes of the population. However, the recent turmoil on the direct effects of the integration, inter alia, the imposition of controversial legislation regarding abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, reveals the deficit in the integration process of the BES islands,” Van Rijn contested. Van Rijn also thinks it would have been better if the results of the negotiations with The Netherlands about the new status would have been put to a final referendum before 10-10-10, but did Statia have a real alternative at that time? “Every outcome would have been second best, because continuation of the Netherlands Antilles was not possible anymore,” he said.
An autonomous status for Statia would theoretically have been feasible and possible, and still is, but Van Rijn cautioned about this alternative. “Even for St. Maarten this is difficult enough. Autonomy means that you can decide about your own money. But, it also means that you basically have to earn your own money. At the moment the expenditures of the three BES islands on health care are US $90 million, only $30 million of which are paid for by the citizens of the BES themselves.” Independence is also possible, but would take the island away from the protective shield of the Kingdom and would take Dutch citizenship and passports away. Finally, is the present status really very different from the status Statia opted for? Van Rijn wondered. “The big difference now is that the central level is not based in Willemstad but in The Hague…It is true: The Hague has more power and competences than Willemstad. It is also true that Statia would have had more influence on the central level as one of the five Island Territories of The Netherlands Antilles than nowadays as only one of the 400+ local communities of The Netherlands. But, it is also true that the central level is functioning much smoother and better then The Netherlands- Antillean central level. That means “unfortunately” that you are not only obliged to pay taxes, but that you also have to pay them in fact.”
No eternal thing
Van Rijn said that in terms of self-determination the current status was not a bad choice, although some “major deficits” call for “legal and practical action.” The present status is not a “given and eternal thing,” Van Rijn underlined. “The people have the right to ask for changes if it wants so. But, I also would advise: be realistic. Statia counts 4,000 citizens. In The Netherlands we are more than 16 million… The construction you chose a few years ago offers a lot of advantages. It gives you protection and security. Be proud of it. Don’t throw it away too easily.” The UNA professor advised for the evaluation to be taken seriously and prepared well. It is the chance for you to do proposals for change, if you feel the need. “Your right to self-determination gives you the right to formulate your wishes, and it puts an obligation upon The Netherlands to listen to you and to try to realise these wishes together with you when feasible and realistic.” He pleaded for better communication between the islands and The Hague and for a better level of representation of the islands on a central level, stating that the “democratic deficit of non-representation must be taken away.” He welcomed the suggestion for a special State Secretary for the BESislands within the Dutch government.
Changes and progress
Commissioner of Constitutional Affairs Koos Sneek gave a presentation on the developments concerning the constitutional status, including changes and progress made to mould the present status in a way most beneficial to the people. “Even Aruba with a ‘Status Aparte’ since 1986, does not have the level of services we are enjoying in Statia,” Sneek claimed. “Our situation, as a public entity is not equal to that of a municipality in the European part of The Netherlands and, therefore, we can be different. We can have different laws, a different tax system, but also a different social services system. This is also supported in our Constitution where Article 1 states that we are all treated equal in equal circumstances. This means that when the circumstances are not equal one does not need to be treated equal. It is important to emphasize though, that this inequality counts not only for benefits but also for our obligations. This means for instance that our taxes can be less and our health benefits can be more. Which, by the way, is also the case,” Sneek said. In the meantime, the First Chamber has delayed the process in which Statia’s special status will be imbedded in the Constitution. “This will take the pressure of the evaluation period and takes away the impression that already before the completion of the evaluation the decision was made on our final constitutional status,” Sneek said.
“Is this a perfect status? The answer is no. But, is there a perfect status? Also to this question the answer is no. In my humble opinion, for the moment and foreseeable future the status as a public entity is by far the most favourable one within the possibilities for Statia, taking into consideration for instance the size of our island, our population size and geographical situation. “This status guarantees the best possible level of services for our people. It guarantees the best possible safety and security as well as proper and transparent government. Of course we have started our new status with all kind of shortcomings; but, I believe that it is clearly visible that both the central government in The Hague and the island government are making great strides with the improvement of all matters that require improvement,” Commissioner Sneek told the audience As examples of such improvements, Sneek specifically mentioned the tax system, the increase in minimum wage and health care insurance. Sneek stressed that the DP was not against a referendum, but that it was important to await the outcome of the evaluation. “After the evaluation we can then decide to hold a referendum,” he said. DP leader Reuben Merkman stated that the right of self determination cannot be taken away from the people. “This means that we as Island Council should stop fighting one another and put laws in place to guarantee our island and its people are in the best position to make any decision that is needed. By fighting one another the people of Statia are divided by us, the leaders, who should lead and unite them.” Merkman said it was important for people to be educated pertaining to what a referendum entails and which statuses are economically possible. More information sessions will be convened at a later date.
Source: “The Daily Herald” 2013-05-22 (35)