The Daily Herald published the following comment:
On March 5, 2014 the College Voor De Rechten Van De Mens submitted an advice concerning human rights in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba (BES) to the Dutch Parliament. In the BES, The Netherlands is responsible for human rights since the islands became public entities on October 10, 2010. This advice covers three important human rights topics including: (1) application of the principle of equality; (2) right to an adequate standard of living; and (3) criminal issues.
It is interesting that these three topics were discussed. On March 4, 2014, the Daily Herald reported how the United States slammed the Caribbean for their human rights practices. The US was particularly concerned about the insufficient respect for the rule of law, deficient judicial systems, chronic government corruption and the lack of transparency. More specifically, there was criticism of unnecessary and lengthy pre-trial detentions, societal discrimination against women, and the systemic abuse of women and children.
On Friday March 7, 2014, an article appeared specifically discussing human rights in the BES. This article supported the earlier article reporting high poverty rates and expensive food products (particularly fruits and vegetables). Once again there was a focus on the inefficiencies of the criminal justice system.
The detention rate in the Caribbean Netherlands is eight times higher than the European Netherlands. The rights of suspects in St. Eustatius and Saba were a particular focus. Examples of human rights violations against suspects included access to a lawyer and the abuse of pre-trail detention.
The problems with the criminal justice system largely result from a failure to convert from Antillean to Dutch law. This change was initiated because Antillean law explicitly violated suspect’s rights and had no provisions to protect women and children who were victims of abuse/violence.
The Dutch law includes various international human rights treaties, including the convention against torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment (hereinafter: CAT).
Article 1 of the Constitution sets out the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination. This means that the Dutch government is obliged to fully implement all provisions of CAT in the Caribbean Netherlands The advice sent to Parliament states that 60% of the BES population lives under the poverty line which is connected to a sub-standard educational system and the lack of viable employment. Also, women are not treated as equal members of society, often not empowered, resulting in violence against them.
The issue of human rights means that people living in the BES deserve a better lifestyle. Simple acts that may reduce poverty include increasing salaries and job creation through private industry. Job creation should be concurrent with educational opportunities so that local populations can obtain the available jobs and they do not have to be imported. Local government must work hard for its people and not solely rely on the Dutch government. Additionally, efforts must be made to implement existing and new policies that can improve the current human rights situation. The advice sent to parliament on March 5, 2014, reflects interest on the part of the Netherlands to protect and monitor human rights and will be a starting point for the 2015 evaluation for political reclassification.
However, the advice and the two Daily Herald articles also indicate that within the BES there is a problem of systemic and multi-leveled human rights violations. While the Netherlands is committed to assisting, it is important for the people living in the BES to know what human rights are and how we as individuals are entitled to them. Is it possible that when living in a culture where the violation of human rights is systematic, those people living in it are unable to recognize it?
It is up to individuals and communities living in the BES to begin to recognize human rights violations and begin framing some of their personal circumstances (as well as those of others) within a human rights context. Therefore, it is a human rights issue when a woman or child is the victim of violence and there are no serious legal repercussions against the perpetrator. It is a human rights issue when a minor is taken into police custody without informing a parent or guardian. It is a human rights issue when suspects are held with insufficient evidence and kept in pre-trail detention for months. It is a human rights issue when a mother’s salary is so low that she cannot afford to buy food for herself and her children.
The establishment of a human rights institute in the Netherlands as well as the advice sent to Parliament is a step in the right direction. However, as BES islanders it is up to us to stay informed and raise our consciousness. While we can be supported by the Netherlands, if WE do not ask for human rights we ultimately will NOT receive them. We must not just allow the Netherlands to ensure us our human rights, we must first understand what human rights are and what they mean. Ultimately, we must transform culture and society into one where respect and dignity for human rights is not for the few but for all.
Dr. Teresa E. Leslie
President and founder, Eastern Caribbean Public Health Foundation
based in Sint Eustatius.