Former Dutch Justice Minister enlightens at USM: “Lack of integrity is difficult to deal with”

POSTED: 01/24/14 3:17 PM

St. Maarten – The third Herman Tjeenk Willink Lecture put on by the Council of Advice and the University of St. Martin was described as “enlightening” by the many state and government officials, private sector employees and members of civil society in attendance.
Delivering the key note address on the top “Public Prosecutors Office and the promotion of integrity: political instrument or independent body?” was Winnie Sorgdrager, Member of the Kingdom Council of State, former Minister of Justice and former Attorney General of the Netherlands.

“The relationship between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice is of great importance, maybe in St. Maarten even more than the Netherlands. If there are rumors about corruption, lack of integrity in the government, or among elected representatives and the police force, how do we act? We think of the Public Prosecution as the body that will solve the problem. That’s the best solution, sometimes, in particular in cases of corruption. However the lack of integrity is much more difficult to deal with,” she stated.
Sorgdrager explained that investigations by the Police, Public Prosecutor and Penal Judge are all bound by the penal law, adding that it is difficult to prove a case of corruptions since the penal law is very strict.

“My first advice would be to use the penal law only when you are pretty sure that there is enough proof and the case will end in a conviction. If not, there will only be losers and in particular, the Public Prosecutor’s Office,” she emphasized.

She explained that this also has to do with the system of public prosecution in the country and how effectively the system functions.
The former Dutch Attorney General provided historical observations on how the Dutch Public Prosecution system began with the French occupation of the Netherlands and the French Revolution in the 18th century.
At that time, the French prosecutorial powers were headed by French head of state. This model created divisions in the Netherlands with some persons advocating that the Dutch Prosecutor’s Office follow the French’s example and remain under the government while another sect called for an independent Prosecutor’s Office that was closely linked to the judiciary.
The decision was made in 1827 through the Law of the Judicial Organization to have Prosecutor’s independent and no longer “caretakers of the King.” They were expected to be above influence from politicians, follow instructions of judges only and the government would have no possibility to redress them. The Council of State proposed Article 5 of the Law of the Judicial Organization. The prosecutors were to be the King’s officials and will be obliged to follow his instructions, ordered by the King or the Department of Justice. Article 5 functioned this way until reorganization in 1999.

The mandate of the Prosecutor’s Office is also widening, Sorgdrager said as less activities end up before the judge.
State law prescribes the principles of responsibility, checks and balances and the Parliament while the penal law sees the judge and the judiciary as the playground, independent of political involvement. The principal of discretionary powers of the Public Prosecutor allows the prosecutor to set priorities, Sorgdrager noted.
She spent a considerable amount of time explaining the relationship between the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Minister of Justice.
“If a minister expects political problems in case of dismissal, then he will make his deliberation, which decision will cause less political problems. The Prosecutor and the Minister of Justice are in a difficult position if they operate in a small community.  Generally, small communities are always vulnerable to corruption and lack of integrity much more than bigger countries and bigger communities. Family ties, the tendency for re-election, business connections are all involved,” she posited.

Integrity is one of the key issues connected to the development of a country, the Council of State member believes.
“A country with a low grade of corruption is attractive to investors. Integrity is also an important issue that is at the top of the agenda of international organizations.”
Sorgdrager remarked  that within her first four days on St. Maarten she has become fully aware of the activities  and debate in promoting integrity on St. Maarten.
Of the role of Prosecutor’s Office in combatting corruption and promoting integrity, she said that the agency must function in a transparent, efficient and effective manner.  All members have to function in the same way.
“In a small community it would be good if people don’t act for too long in the same position.”
The same principle should govern the Police, Sorgdrager said.

“Everybody knows how difficult it is to get qualified people for the Police. Hopefully, there will be enough qualified people and budget for the Landsrechere. Lack of budget should not be an excuse for the lack of progress in a corruption investigation,” she added.

“Corruption can destroy the economy of the country and the morals and  values of the community. So the relationship between the Prosecutor and the Minister of Justice is a vulnerable one. We don’t need much consciousness to realize how easily politics can influence the procedure.
A weak minister will easily get into the swamp, pressure from his or her relatives, connections, pressure from colleagues and Parliamentarians etc.
The only time the Minister of Justice has the possibility to give instructions to the Prosecutor is to find out what stage an investigation is at, when it will be solved and how to combat corruption. Often a corruption case ends in disappointment as investigations take too long and can be obstructed for several reasons.”
She added that in small communities there are more opportunities for bribery and blackmail. She indicated that cases of corruption are always difficult to prove as documents  disappear and  witnesses  become reluctant don’t want to talk.

Sorgdrager noted that while integrity is a very common word, the explanation of the term is very vague. Therefore in the case of public officials, a strict code of conduct needs to be established to govern acceptable behaviour. This should take into account the Council of Ministers, political parties and representatives of the people.
“Always have two or more persons involved in decisions about permits, payments, comprehensive files. The combating of corruption and the promotion integrity is a matter of culture and attitudes. Important people have to be role models,” she added.
Making public examples of offenders, naming and shaming, training of civil servants and public awareness campaigns will also go a long way towards promoting a culture of integrity in the society, she suggested.

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