The Netherlands’ Dutch Caribbean Problem

The Kingdom of the Netherlands has a corruption problem. Although the country of Netherlands maintains a squeaky-clean image, ranking eighth in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the Kingdom of the Netherlands is comprised of not only the Netherlands itself, but also three semi-autonomous island countries in the Caribbean. These island countries, along with three territorial islands directly controlled by the Netherlands, collectively form the Dutch Caribbean. And the Dutch Caribbean, unlike the Western European country, has a serious corruption problem, the severity of which is being diluted by the positive perceptions of the Netherlands.

Before addressing corruption in the Dutch Caribbean specifically, it’s worth explaining the Kingdom’s somewhat unusual constituent-country structure. Technically speaking, the Kingdom is composed of four equal autonomous countries: The Netherlands, Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten. The citizens of all four countries are Dutch nationals. Each country has its own constitution and parliament, but the Kingdom is sovereign, retaining responsibility for foreign policy, defense, and other “Kingdom issues,” including oversight of human rights and freedoms within all Kingdom territories. Of the four countries that comprise the Kingdom, the Netherlands is by far the largest, accounting for 98% of both the Kingdom’s land mass and population. And although Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten each have a representative within the Kingdom’s council of ministers, the Netherlands in effect also directly controls the Kingdom, as well as the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius, which are Dutch territories.

Most international corruption assessments lump the Dutch Caribbean in together with the Netherlands. The CPI, for example, does not include separate evaluations for Aruba, Curacao, or Sint Maarten, nor does the U.S. State Department. The tendency to consider the Dutch Caribbean as part of the Netherlands, and to provide a single report or score for “the Netherlands” as a whole, obscures the fact that the Dutch Caribbean does, in fact, have a very serious corruption problem on each of its constituent islands, as the following brief survey illustrates:

  • Aruba. Aruba, to quote a former member of Dutch parliament, is “corrupt as hell.” Since 2018, the Central Bank of Aruba (CBA) has conducted an annual corruption perception survey to take the place of the separate report that Transparency International has not been conducting. The results are not encouraging. In 2020, CBA found that “94% of respondents believed corruption was ‘widespread,’ up from 81% in 2019.” In early 2021, Aruba’s governing coalition collapsed entirely amid a corruption scandal – the second in two years. Later, in August, a former minister from a different party was sworn into parliament the same week he was released from prison during a corruption investigation.
  • Curacao. Although one private security firm listed corruption in Curacao as “low by regional standards,” this positive attribution may be because “Curacao remains part of the Netherlands.” The story on the ground is not so optimistic. In 2013, Transparency International conducted a National Integrity System (NIS) assessment of Curacao, and found significant weaknesses in the public sector, political parties, and the media. That same year, Curacao’s most prominent anticorruption politician was assassinated in broad daylight. Although the murder was later attributed to a drug gang, the assassination contributed to a broad dampening of press freedom. Although the Netherlands ranks among the world’s top countries for freedom of the press, Curacao’s journalists—especially those reporting on high-level corruption—live in an environment of fear. In 2016, the first comprehensive UNESCO report on the subject found that Curacao’s “media are unable to adequately play their role as watchdog over the authorities and the other powerful stakeholders in society.”
  • Sint Maarten. Transparency International’s 2015 NIS report on Sint Maarten concluded that the “internal governance dimension, consisting of transparency, accountability and integrity, is the weakest dimension in the overall NIS of St. Maarten.” The report further noted that, although some integrity laws were in place, they had seen no use whatsoever under the past two administrations. In addition, Sint Maarten has struggled with corruption in the allocation of disaster relief funds. In 2018, following Hurricane Irma, the Netherlands imposed conditions on relief funds, including “a monitoring system to oversee the monetary flow and implement anti-corruption measures.” The then-prime minister of Sint Maarten refused to accept the funds at all under those conditions, and eventually resigned.
  • Caribbean Territories (Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius). The Territories also struggle with corruption issues, albeit to a lesser extent. The early 2010s saw a rash of corrupt activity across all three territorial islands, and bribery has been alleged to play a role in the formation of the governments that played a part in the islands joining the Netherlands after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010.

Because the Kingdom of the Netherlands is typically considered as a whole, these corruption issues have gone largely unnoticed outside of the islands’ local press. This should change. It’s well past time for the Kingdom to start taking flack for the corruption in its constituent states when it is evaluated by foreign countries, media, and NGOs. International attention and criticism would help push the Kingdom to take a more active role in addressing these problems. In fairness, the Kingdom has already taken some steps to address concerns about corruption in the Dutch Caribbean islands. For example, as noted above, the Netherlands has started to impose anticorruption conditions on disaster relief money (for example, in 2018 and 2021)—an important and laudable step. The Kingdom has also posted a small anticorruption taskforce in Curacao as of 2016. But more can and should be done.

Now, I am admittedly not an expert on the nuances of the Kingdom’s governing Charter, but it seems to me that the Charter would permit the Kingdom to play a more active role in fighting corruption. The Charter guarantees fundamental human rights and freedoms, legal certainty, and “deugdelijk bestuur,” which is typically translated into English as “good governance,” but in the context of the Charter is specifically aimed at political integrity and corruption. Although the Charter mandates that each country has the duty to promote the realization of these rights, the safeguarding of these rights and good governance is a Kingdom Affair under Article 43 of the Charter. Under Article 51, if any organ in the constituent countries fails in its duties of good governance as provided by the Charter, the Kingdom may act, so long as it sets forth the legal grounds and reasons for doing so. This means that if, in the judgment of the Council of Ministers, “ an autonomous country fails to fulfil its duty adequately” in the safeguarding of good governance, the Kingdom can take action. Indeed, there is some precedent—though admittedly rare—for this sort of intervention: The Kingdom has successfully invoked Article 43 of the Charter to intervene in governance-related matters such as financial policy and fair elections. Although these interventions have been met with furious resistance from the Caribbean countries—in 2014, when the Council of Ministers ordered an investigation into Aruba’s finances, the Prime Minister of Aruba went on hunger strike for a week and the Aruban government attempted to take legal action—the Kingdom has ultimately prevailed. These precedents indicate that the Kingdom could directly impose certain anticorruption reforms with the aim of providing the Caribbean countries with more oversight, resources, and greater capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption.

Finally, a word of caution, and perhaps an explanation for why these more direct interventions have not happened already. Anticorruption interventions – especially of the direct kind advocated for here – are likely to be deeply unpopular in the islands. The Netherlands acquired its Caribbean holdings through colonization, and the specter of imperialism looms over the Kingdom’s interactions with the islands to this day. The Dutch government is wary of seeming like a colonizer, and the Caribbean governments play into that fear avoid corruption oversight. For instance, when the Netherlands conditioned pandemic relief to Sint Maarten on the latter’s government overhauling, among other things, exorbitantly high public official salaries, Sint Maarten’s Prime Minister accused the Dutch government of racism and colonialism, and Sint Maarten filed a petition with the UN accusing the Netherlands of “racial discrimination.” While one must always be appropriately sensitive to the history of colonialism and its present-day consequences, it is nevertheless difficult not to view this as an attempted deflection from a legitimate anticorruption effort, especially given Sint Maarten’s more transparently self-serving resistance to anticorruption oversight in the past. Were these countries truly independent, that would be another story. But they remain constituents of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the Kingdom can – and should – enforce good governance.

4 thoughts on “The Netherlands’ Dutch Caribbean Problem

  1. Hear, hear! As a Dutch national and anticorruption enthusiast, I am glad that you wrote this article. Thank you.
    In its context, I think it should be noted that the three islands that are under direct control are tiny (couple of thousands inhabitants each) and that also Sint Maarten is very small. Only Curaçao and Aruba are somewhat larger islands ( population 100.000+). A second comment is that because of the limted size of these islands, it is almost impossible to not run into conflicts of interest at each turn. Everyone’s family, especially on the four smallest islands. And thirdly it would be relevant to note (but probably not surprising) that the Caribbean part of the Kingdom also suffers from a high organized crime rate.

  2. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, I led an assessment of how anti-corruption reforms in Sint Maarten could improve its recovery from hurricanes and other extreme weather events in the future. The observation above – that in a tiny island nation where everyone knows everyone else, it is difficult to avoid relationship-based governance – was a key takeaway. That said, there are ample opportunities for reform, and the time to implement them is now. My colleague and I summarized our findings at https://theconversation.com/how-corruption-slows-disaster-recovery-96832.

    • I am also amazed by this small country corruption hypothesis “every body knows every body” therefore it is extremely difficult to escape corruption, particularly, of relationship based corruption (nepotism, favoritism, conflict of interest, gift giving culture). I suppose, such culture reduces direct bribery or cash based monetary corruption.

    • Glad to see this comment. The full paper, Corruption in the Era of Climate Change, was very helpful when researching this post and I recommend it to anyone interested in reading more on this topic.

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