No funds, no equipment and rented plastic chairs to sit on

POSTED: 06/30/11 12:28 PM

The Ombudsman’s first 82 days

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – Nine months and counting and the Ombudsman office is still awaiting the release of Usona-funds to equip the organization. Journalists who were invited to a press conference yesterday were received in a barebones cellar-like multi-purpose room where they had to sit on rented plastic garden chairs. The Ombudsman has no computers, no phone system and no furniture. The two printers that are in the office have been paid from Ombudsman Nilda Arduin’s private funds. The laptops in the office are all private property of the current four staff members. Arduin also put up the money for recent business trips to Curacao, Amsterdam and Vienna, without proper business cards in her wallet.

“Our spirit keeps us going,” Arduin said yesterday when she presented her office’s first annual report to the media. But the lack of funding has also immediate consequences: “We are unable to handle new complaints until we are properly equipped,” she said. So far, the Ombudsman has received around one hundred complaints. Of those, 27 percent were referred to other instances, because they do not fall under the ombudsman’s authority. Of the rest, 14 percent has been dealt with.

The seventeen-page annual report Arduin released yesterday is an abbreviated version. Appendices were omitted because, she explained, they are draft documents. They will in due time be added to the 2011 annual report.

The 2010 annual report covers the first 82 days in the history of St. Maarten’s Ombudsman office. In it, Arduin explains the role and the responsibilities of her office.

During the press conference, she referred to her participation in the Caroa conference in Curacao in November. Caroa is the Caribbean Ombudsman association. During this conference, St. Maarten became a member; Arduin also committed to hosting the 2012 Caroa conference in St. Maarten.

Arduin said yesterday that attending this conference was a good networking opportunity, as she made contacts with Alex Brenninkmeijer, the Dutch national Ombudsman, and Amsterdam’s Ombudsman Petra Visscher. She was also encouraged to join the International Ombudsman Institute.

The Ombudsman activities in 2010 were primarily limited to drafting plans and procedures for the organization’s basic operation. In its first 82 days, the bureau did not have rules, policies and procedures in place, nor was the office adequately equipped. “Handling of complaints was both impossible and not responsible under those circumstances,” the annual report states.

But the Ombudsman did receive its share of questions from the public even though it was, as the report states, “provided for by law and appointed, but not operational.” The bureau was for instance flooded with emails and phone calls about the Buncamper-saga in December.

The bureau did intervene in some cases, for instance with SVB and immigration, “to assist citizens to acquire information.”

The Ombudsman also got involved with the controversies at the Cadastre, mainly concerning the accessibility of the public registers during official holidays. The cadastre disputed the Ombudsman’s authority over its organization at the time. “I maintain my position, “ Arduin said yesterday. “We have had several meetings to review the procedures and they have been cooperative.”

The Ombudsman declined to act on a request by the Bar association to amend the national ordinance on the prosecution of politicians. The Bar wrote in a legal opinion that this ordinance equals feudal legislation. The Ombudsman declined to take the ordinance for annulment to the Constitutional court, because the six-week period the Ombudsman has to do this after the introduction of a law had already expired.

The day before yesterday, the Ombudsman paid a visit to the Inmates Association at the Pointe Blanche prison to hear their complains about human rights violations, unhygienic conditions in the prison and the lack of rehabilitation opportunities. Arduin said it is too early to react in detail, but she indicated to the Inmates Association that an in-depth investigation would take at least another six week before it gets underway.

In the report’s conclusion, Arduin makes clear that the functioning of the Ombudsman is severely hampered by the lack of funding. “Effectiveness of the Ombudsman largely depends on its independence, impartiality and maintaining confidentiality in conducting inquiries. (…) Obtaining the proper tools, infrastructure, human resources and independent access to funds are therefore paramount to a successful operation (…). Prompt execution of the IVB-project (for institutional strengthening – ed.) through Usona and timely release of budgeted money for the operation of the Ombudsman is an essential condition to build a respectable foundation for this high council of state. An unstable foundation will compromise the institution in becoming an authority which will gain the respect , confidence and trust of both people and the government.”

Arduin concludes her report by stating that “it behooves Parliament to ensure that the Ombudsman is provided all required facilities in keeping with article 12 section 2 of the national ordinance Ombudsman.”

 

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