The Ombudsmen of the Kingdom met on Saba this week. “It was our turn to organize the yearly gathering. We chose Saba and everyone is happy that we did,” said National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen.
“Saba is a real special place. We have very good relations with Saba, despite the great distance between here and The Hague where the National Ombudsman office is located. We are open, involved and we listen carefully to what the people here have to say,” said Van Zutphen. The Ombudsman is the official institution that handles complaints of people about their government. The National Ombudsman is also there for Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.
The National Ombudsman, the Curaçao Ombudsman and the St. Maarten Ombudsman have been meeting once a year since 2015. In that first year, the meeting took place in Aruba, which should soon have its Ombudsman. In 2016, the meeting took place in St. Maarten. In 2017, the Ombudsmen met in Curaçao right after the 9th biennial conference of the Caribbean Ombudsman Association (CAROA), which took place in Bonaire and was hosted by the National Ombudsman.
On Saba, the National Ombudsman and his colleagues, Curaçao Ombudsman Keursly Concincion and St. Maarten Ombudsman Gwendolien Mossel, toured the island and spoke with different people. “We wanted to get a feeling of what is going on,” said Van Zutphen, who was very positive about the informal workshop that took place on Monday, January 21, with a number of civil servants of the Public Entity Saba.
“Everyone felt free to speak their mind. People are motivated and involved. It is important that people feel supported in what they do,” he said. One issue that was brought forward is the issue of the over-asking of the local government. “Some people are asking too much of government. We talked about how to manage over-expectations,” said Van Zutphen.
Saba’s small scale adds an additional dimension. “Being on a small island is a fact of life. We take that into consideration when we talk about finding solutions when people file a complaint.” In that sense, safeguarding the privacy of the person who files a complaint is also important.
Van Zutphen is very positive about the initiative of the Public Entity Saba to establish a Legal Desk per February 2019, the first of its kind in the Dutch Caribbean. “It can serve as an example for the other islands. We all can learn from it.” The Legal Desk will be manned by lawyer Nathalie Tackling from St. Maarten.
“It is a good initiative. The access to the legal system is expensive. Not everyone can afford the high costs of a lawyer and going to court. The Legal Desk truly lowers the threshold for people,” said Van Zutphen. Having a Legal Desk on Saba also means that people don’t have to pay the high cost of traveling to St. Maarten to see a lawyer, notary or a judge.
Not only for the people who can get legal assistance, but also because it can serve as a link between the Saba Legal Desk and the National Ombudsman. We can exchange information and provide even more and better assistance to people.”
Van Zutphen said that the National Ombudsman office has been investing in the Caribbean Netherlands. There is now a permanent team of five persons. Trainings and workshops have been organized about the history, culture and constitutional developments of the islands to increase the staff’s know-how. The staff also participates in language courses. The National Ombudsman team visit the Caribbean Netherlands three times per year. The budget, coming from the Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations (BZK), has now been secured for that.
He announced that next month, February, Children’s Ombudsman Margrite Kalverboer and her team will visit the three Caribbean Netherlands. A team of the National Ombudsman will also visit the islands. Not only for the regular open office hours where people can come in to talk and file a complaint, but also to start an investigation into poverty on the islands. The team will first focus on the elderly and the (social) facilities that are available to them. After the summer, the National Ombudsman plans to investigate the situation of single parents and children. The Children’s Ombudsman will be involved in this latter part of the investigation.
“Two out of five families are living under the poverty line. That is unacceptable. I want to know how these families are doing. We want to hear the people’s stories. Not the figures,” said Van Zutphen, who explained that the issues that these families face will be included in this investigation and the subsequent report. The National Ombudsman regularly does investigations and drafts reports about government entities and services. Last year, a report was released about the Health Insurance Office ZVK. The next report will be about the Immigration and Naturalization Service IND. The Caribbean Netherlands Police Service (KPCN) is also on the list.
More people are approaching the National Ombudsman for assistance and to file a complaint. In 2017, the total number of complaints in the Caribbean Netherlands was 150. In 2018, this number increased to about 200. “People are more familiar with us. I see it as a sign that people’s trust in us has grown. People know they can talk to us confidentially,” said Van Zutphen.