Opinion: Wrong choice (not honoring) Dutch American Friendship Treaty)

POSTED: 08/2/11 1:05 PM

The Dutch American Friendship Treaty keeps haunting the government of St. Maarten. Time and again, the courts have ruled that this treaty is directly applicable in St. Maarten and time and again the government has argued against these decisions.

The crux of the matter is that under this treaty, signed in 1957 between the United States and the Netherlands, Americans are entitled to treatment equal to the way European Dutch are treated in St. Maarten. That does not sit well with the government, even though at times politicians have made conflicting statements about it.

Almost two years ago, on August 10, 2009, then Commissioner of Economic Affairs Frans Richardson said in the Island Council: “If you sign a treaty, you must adhere to it.”

That did not stop the Island Council from refusing a director’s license to Brian Mathew Leblanc for The Crew’s Nest bar and restaurant.

Last week’s court ruling concerned another American in St. Maarten, Ricardo Perez and his family. Perez asked to be legally admitted to the island, but the government turned him down. Perez called upon the Friendship Treaty – and the Court in First Instance – and he got the result he more or less expected.
The Minister of Justice now has until September 19 to take a new decision about Perez’s request. The Minister also has the option to appeal the court ruling. This has to be done on September 5 the latest.

In the Crew’s Nest ruling, the court came up with an interesting point of view. The Executive Council had refused Leblanc his director’s license, because he had previously submitted a request for a work permit. This work permit had been denied, and the Executive Council thought that, by asking for a director’s license, Leblanc was attempting to circumvent the law.

But the court had already disagreed with this position in 2010. The court ruled that the ordinance on labor for foreigners does not apply to Americans and that it is not possible to circumvent legislation that does not apply in the first place.

All this now leaves many Americans to wonder how the Friendly Country deals with the laws it is subjected to. The stubborn attempts to get away from obligations laid down in the Friendship Treaty indicate that the government would rather die than simply do what former Commissioner Richardson declared in 2009: “If you sign a treaty you must adhere to it.”

Last year Sarah Wescot-Williams supported that point of view, when she told this newspaper in July that the treaty is applicable in St. Maarten. She dismissed the Executive Council’s argument that the treaty does not apply “because St. Maarten is not a country yet.”

That was last year, when Wescot-Williams was the leader of the Democratic Party, not the Prime Minister of country St. Maarten. Though the Prime Minister does not seem to be directly involved in the latest attempt to shoot down the significance and the scope of this treaty, it is odd that a minister in her cabinet has gone to court arguing that the treaty is not directly applicable, even though there are several court rulings that state exactly the opposite.

So what is the government afraid of? An American invasion? Civil law attorney Wim Van Sambeek argued last week that the scope of the treaty is very limited and that it only applies to investors and entrepreneurs. But the question remains if this is really so, because the Court in First Instance ruled last year that the ordinance on labor for foreigners does not apply to Americans. This suggests that Americans should have no problem whatsoever to come to St. Maarten and get a job.

Since they are entitled to the same treatment as European Dutch, Americans do not need a work permit, but that position is of course hotly contested by the government. How else should one then understand the court’s opinion that the ordinance on labor for foreigners does not apply to Americans?

The government’s attitude reeks of protectionism. A vulnerable labor market needs some of that protection for sure, but if locals need protection at all it is due to the broken education system and the failure of the school system to deliver young people who are up to the task in the competitive job market. Keeping others out and doing nothing, or not enough, to bring those youngsters up to par will harm St. Maarten’s economy in the long run and it certainly will not inspire local youngsters to bring out the best in themselves.

Therefore, by maintaining a stubborn and designed for failure attitude towards the Dutch American Friendship Treaty the government is definitely making the wrong choice.

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