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Public statement on the prohibition of a solidarity march on SXM about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

PHILIPSBURG:--- We call for the Government of Sint Maarten to retract its decision to prohibit the recently announced solidarity march on Sint Maarten.

On November 9, an informal collective, identifying themselves as SXM in Solidarity with Palestine announced a solidarity march about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This was formally announced to the Minister of Justice on November 10, in line with the National Ordinance on Public Manifestations. For this march, organizers developed a safety plan to ensure that the march would be peaceful. This has been consulted with the local police forces who provided additional input to mitigate any potential risk. After the first meeting, the organizers adjusted the plan and amended the request on the 16th of November.

On November 19, the Minister of Justice prohibited the march from happening by Ministerial Decree. In the decision of the Minister of Justice prohibiting the march, it was not clarified whose rights would be infringed upon when the march would take place.

The demonstration organizers lament the government's decision to prohibit the march and is of the opinion that basic civil rights are denied to those who want to express solidarity with the victims of the genocide in Palestine, calling also for an immediate ceasefire. The organizers, who wish to remain anonymous due to their fear of further political persecution, also express their concern about the government's incapacity to guarantee freedom of speech in the country of Sint Maarten.

We notified Minister Richardson and the police force of our intentions to hold a peaceful demonstration more than a week ahead of time, and together with the police, we even designed a safety plan. Our rights as citizens have been clearly denied, and this should concern all residents of the island and Dutch Kingdom authorities, no matter what your opinion on the reason for the announced protest.

In their decision, the Government stated to “have taken note of the concerning propaganda on social media related to the march on November 19, 2023.” Allegedly, “this propaganda promotes the destruction of property and the burning of national flags.”

The organizers reject this claim and deny that any propaganda, especially any call for the destruction of property and burning of national flags has been part of the event’s promotion. Moreover, the term propaganda insinuates that there has been sharing of false information to mislead people into action, whereas nothing but facts have been presented in the announcement of the march. The organizers reiterate that we have always clearly communicated that violence, hateful messaging, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, support for Hamas, or the atrocities committed by the Israeli State would not be accepted at the event. We hoped to be able to consult members of the Jewish community and collectively advocate against human rights violations.

Organizers, after the decision, were made aware of a video in which a Sint Maarten resident burns an Israeli flag and that this could be the reason for the Minister’s decision. Since this video was posted before any announcement for the peace march was to take place, this is entirely unrelated to the intended protest and we were never made aware of its existence by the relevant authorities. To prohibit a demonstration because one person posted a video of himself burning an Israeli flag a month beforehand is ludicrous. That would be like canceling Carnival because one person was drinking and driving a month before the annual event.

As a reason for the prohibition, the Minister of Justice states that “the expected unrest as well as direct and severe risk for public order that this march could create in the community of St. Maarten, is of great concern. The decision, according to the Minister, is in line with “Article 5, paragraph 2, in conjunction with Article 2 of the National Ordinance on Public Manifestations” where it is further stated that “the Minister of Justice has the authority to prohibit a demonstration for the protection of health, in the interests of traffic and to prevent or control disorder.” Although the organizers understand that a demonstration could lead to some social unrest - after all not everybody has the same opinion - this in itself could not be a reason to restrict people’s right to express their opinions through demonstration. It seems that the Government is more concerned about keeping a false narrative alive, where there is no space to let any conflict come to the surface as this threatens an image of a “Friendly Island”.

The Government of Sint Maarten seems to be confused about what their obligations are to the general population, and ministers do not understand what is happening in the Middle East. They seem to think that we are dealing with a religious conflict, when in fact what the world is witnessing is genocide. It is unfortunate that island residents concerned with the international situation will have to find recourse in the French territory. This is not about Arabs versus Jews, the largest demonstrations in the United States are organized by the Jewish community. The march, and we will demonstrate eventually, will be composed of people from all ethnic, religious, and national identities, and all walks of life. Just like in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020.

The Government states that “the possibility of placing restrictions on the demonstration has been extensively reviewed. However, it is concluded that these restrictions will insufficiently take away the aforementioned expected unrest as well as direct and severe risk for public order.”

The Government of Sint Maarten has not done everything in its power to respond to the alleged risks. A decision to prohibit a demonstration should not be taken lightly as the Government needs to ensure that the constitutional right to the freedom to demonstrate is upheld. If there are any concerns to safety and public order, the Government should take the responsibility of addressing these through other means, such as the prohibition of specific individuals to attend. Similarly, additional mobilization of police forces or even collaboration with the Dutch Marines to ensure the safety of protestors and property could be an option. It should be clear, however, that the expectation was that only 80 to 100 persons would participate in this march.

The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are crucial to uphold democratic values. While we recognize that it is important to address harmful misinformation and ensure public safety, open and respectful dialogue, considering all perspectives, is vital in maintaining harmony - especially in a multi-ethnic society as ours. Prohibiting this march is undermining the social fabric of the Sint Maarten community as supporters of the march feel restricted in their constitutional democratic rights and feel that their opinion matters less than others. Some would even feel like they are only good for paying taxes and are treated like secondhand citizens. This decision by the Minister of Justice is therefore about more than just the initial cause of the protest. This is about upholding the democratic values of our country and its social fabric. We find it worrisome to see how these values are being repressed and the opinions of specific community members are dismissed.

We further find it astonishing that a Government that has on multiple occasions promoted decolonization and the discussion on slavery and colonialism, cannot make the link with the situation in Gaza being a direct result of colonialism. Western states continue to actively support the occupation of territories by foreign entities at the expense of civilian lives and livelihoods, resulting in grave human rights abuses and war crimes of the highest order.

Keeping all the above in mind, the Government of Sint Maarten should retract its decision and allow the peaceful protest to take place. The organizers are open to further discussing any safety measures with the relevant authorities to allow people to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and join in grief for the many deaths this conflict continues to cause.

 

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