Since he succeeded Pierre Heijnen a year ago as a member of the Permanent Committee for Kingdom Relations of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament, Roelof van Laar of the Labour Party PvdA has stirred things up with his candid statements about poverty, children’s rights, education and his critical remarks about the Bosman law proposal to regulate the registration of new immigrants from Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten. This writes The Daily Herald.
Van Laar (33) does so out of a deep feeling of fairness and a strong drive to contribute to a fairer, better world. “Injustice bothers me deeply, especially when it affects children.” The Daily Herald interviewed Van Laar one year after he entered the arena of Kingdom Relations.
Children’s rights, poverty and education are three issues that Van Laar continuously brings up in debates and in the written questions he has sent to Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk. The issue of children’s rights and the willingness to assist children facing difficulties was instilled in him at an early age. His parents took in children from Bosnia to spend a welcome vacation at their home during the civil war in Bosnia. In his previous job as Director of the foundation Free a Girl, a function that he held from 2008 to 2013, Van Laar travelled the world seeking ways to combat child prostitution and the trafficking of especially girls. In 2013 he published a book, “A girl like Roopa,” about his experiences in working with local organisations and the stories of young girls forced into prostitution at brothels, bars and massage parlours.
“Children are, by definition, innocent. We need to protect and defend them. Somebody has to do it and I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to contribute to the fight for improved children’s rights,” said Van Laar. The report on children’s rights in the Dutch Caribbean of the United Nations Children Fund UNICEF Netherlands was actually the first document that he read about the islands when he became a Member of Parliament (MP) in May last year. The UNICEF report confirmed that it was important to take action on this issue in the Kingdom. “There is a lot of violence in these small communities. Child abuse is something that you carry with you your entire life and it is difficult to escape from. Abuse only stops when someone intervenes.” Political support is very important in the fight against child abuse, said Van Laar. Politicians should not accept it as a given that children’s rights are violated. Politicians should therefore ensure that there is also a proper system to counsel and help victims. Reporting points for violation of children’s rights have been set up in the Netherlands but are not common on the islands. The gathering of information and statistics is also lacking on the islands which doesn’t make it easier to tackle child abuse.
No quick fix
Child abuse is a “very complex” issue for which there was no “quick fix,” said Van Laar. “It is a deeply rooted problem. Many children grow up with little love and attention. They are beaten. Parents who were abused as a child, often do the same to their children. It is a vicious circle that must be broken.” Fathers should assume their responsibility. “When you put a child on this world, you are responsible. If you can’t assist financially, then at least make some time to spend with your child,” said Van Laar, who has a daughter of almost two years. The Netherlands has expertise in this area and can make this available. Governments on both sides of the ocean should not assume a wait-and-see attitude to wait for the other to act. “They can also come to an informal agreement,” he said. Van Laar said he was content with the decision taken at the Kingdom Conference, held on Aruba in April this year, to establish a Children’s Rights Task Force which will be drafting an integral plan that will include a number of concrete actions to improve children’s rights on all six islands. The MP wants to contribute to improving the general well-being of the people throughout the Kingdom. And, in those efforts he doesn’t shy away from sharing his discontent and worries, including with minister Plasterk, who is also of the PvdA. “Addressing wrongdoings and concerns is my task. That includes addressing my own minister if I have to.”
One such example is the issue of poverty. Van Laar finds structural poverty in the Caribbean Netherlands unacceptable. “Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba are part of the Netherlands. We are responsible for their wellbeing. We need a structural plan to tackle this,” he said, adding that poverty is a very important issue for the PvdA. Poverty is a complex matter that has a great impact on the community. The fact that the Caribbean Netherlands are located in a region with even greater poverty makes it difficult to combat poverty through higher social benefits because it would disrupt the small island economies. What does work? “Maximum consumer prices, making sure that fruits and vegetables are affordable which also results in healthier children, lower energy tariffs through green energy. There are sufficient possibilities for green energy on the islands.” During their visit to the Caribbean Netherlands in January this year, the Members of Dutch Parliament decided to do some small grocery shopping at the local shops. The high prices confirmed what they already heard from local politicians and residents. “We cannot let people continue to suffer this way. Something needs to be done. That is why I keep bringing up this subject,” said Van Laar. Along the same line Van Laar, who studied politics and business administration at respectively Leiden University and Webster University, brought up the issue of the daily allowance that Dutch civil servants receive when they travel to Bonaire, St. Eustatius or Saba for work during a debate with minister Plasterk earlier this month. According to Van Laar that allowance is way too high, especially when one considers that a single mother on the islands barely makes ends meet. “The day allowance that the civil servant receives for four days is higher than a single mother has to live off for an entire month. That is not correct. The Caribbean Netherlands is part of the Netherlands and therefore it is not abroad. I want the minister to lower that allowance.”
Bosman law proposal
Human rights and by extension equal rights are important to the PvdA. That is why Van Laar protested against the law proposal initiated by his colleague André Bosman of the coalition partner the liberal democratic VVD party to introduce a residency permit for new immigrants from Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten in an effort to stem the flow of poorly educated people of the islands coming to the Netherlands. Van Laar made clear during the plenary handling in the Second Chamber earlier this year that Bosman’s law proposal differentiated between people based on their birth place and that of the parents. He said the proposal as it had been drafted was “unacceptable” and needed “fundamental” changes before he could give it his approval. The over-representation of Dutch Caribbean persons, mostly from Curaçao, in crime, unemployment and drop-out statistics remains a concern, also for the PvdA. The party, however, would rather see a more integral approach to deal with the issue. Investing in the future of the islands so more youngsters leave school with a diploma, an extensive social formation programme and cooperation between the Kingdom partners offer more perspective, according to Van Laar.
High on the agenda is also good governance with integrity. Asked about St. Maarten, Van Laar said that it all started with good governance. That has been a questionable issue. It was the reason why the Kingdom Council of Ministers on September 27, 2013, ordered an integrity inquiry which currently is being carried out under the auspices of St. Maarten Governor Eugene Holiday. According to Van Laar, that inquiry is justified. He said the origin and destination of some (party) funds were “unclear.” “There are clearly ties between the upper and under world.” In his opinion, politicians should give the right example. “It starts with the politicians.” He said he was “very curious” to learn the results of the integrity study that has been ordered. “Hopefully the integrity study in combination with the upcoming elections will result in improvements,” said Van Laar, in whose opinion politics should be self-cleansing. Punishable acts should be prosecuted swiftly and honestly, he said. The integrity study will create transparency and shift the good from the bad politicians. The idea is for St. Maarten to keep the good, honest politicians who work for the country and not to serve themselves or their family, he said.
As for the constitutional relation with the Caribbean Netherlands and the calls on Bonaire and St. Eustatius to hold a referendum, the MP said that he naturally supported this idea. But, he agreed with minister Plasterk that the options in the referendum would have to be realistic. He warned, just like the minister, that the islands that opted to get out of the public entity status would lose the budgetary support from The Hague. Van Laar said an extensive evaluation of the constitutional relations, along with a solid multi-annual plan with clear agreements and a good National Government Representative (Rijksvertegenwoordiger) might be more beneficial. “So everyone knows where they stand. We have not done everything in the right way on the islands. The first thing we did was to build a new prison and tax office.” Whatever the future developments may bring, Van Laar wants to keep working on constructive relations in the Kingdom. At the same time he will keep demanding attention for children’s rights and issues that connect the partners in the Kingdom: sustainability, proper health care and the future of our children. The Inter-Parliamentary Consultation of the Kingdom in The Hague early June will provide another chance for him to do so.