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Pieter van Vollenhoven: 'People aren't always happy to hear the truth.'

A symposium with a festive touch was organised at Leiden University on 20 March to mark the 50-year anniversary of the marriage of Princess Margriet and Pieter van Vollenhoven. The theme of the symposium was 'Catastrophes and the Law', a theme, the royal Princess and Prince were quick to reassure the attendees, that was not intended as a reflection on their marriage.

Driving force

It is nonetheless a topic that is close to their hearts. Princess Margriet has worked for many years on behalf of the Red Cross; the Red Cross Princess Margriet Fund - set up in her name - focuses specifically on preventing the human consequences of natural disasters. Professor Pieter van Vollenhoven has worked for many years in the area of security and was the driving force behind the foundation of the Dutch Safety Board (Onderzoeksraad voor Veiligheid, OVV), where he was chairman for six years. 

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker welcoming Princess Margriet and Pieter van Vollenhoven to the Academy Building.

Important issues during a disaster

During the symposium in the Academy Building, a number of different speakers addressed the legal and administrative issues that play a role during a disaster or crisis. Following the welcome by Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker, five speakers each gave a brief address, after which there was a discussion led by Erwin Muller, Professor of Security and Law in Leiden and Vice-Chairman of the Safety Board. The Prince and Princess clearly enjoyed the fascinating talks and had no hesitation in joining in the discussion. 

Discussion with the audience

Climate change

Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Climate Centre, asked the audience to think about the three biggest natural disasters in the Netherlands over the past hundred years. As might be expected, the 1953 flood was one that came to everybody's mind, whereas hardly anyone realised that the heat waves in 2003 and 2006 were ranked as the other two major disasters. Van Aalst stressed that climate change means that the way emergency support is organised also has to change, and that measures to limit the effects of a natural disaster are becoming increasingly important. 

Not independent

Former mayor of The Hague Jozias van Aartsen talked about how government officials should respond to a disaster or crisis. He referred to important lessons he has learned in his many and diverse government roles, including as a young civil servant during the riots around the coronation and swine fever in his time as Minister of Agriculture. Tjibbe Joustra, current chairman of the OVV, talked about the value and importance of independent research. In his opinion, inspections, such as in the case of the incident surrounding gas extraction in Groningen, are not independent. It was a forceful statement, that provoked disagreement from the Inspector General of Security and Justice, Gertjan Bos. The two men concluded that the inspections are currently less influenced by the responsible  minister than was the case twenty years ago. 

Prinses Margriet responding to a question from the audience

Right to remain silent

The talk by Marianne Bloos, Chief Public Prosecutor at the National Public Prosecutor’s office for serious fraud and environmental crime and asset confiscation, led to heated discussion. Bloos explained the protocol applied by the Public Prosecutor's Office to make sure that this office and the OVV do not impede one another's activities during major accidents and that double work is avoided where possible, such as in the case of autopsies on people who have died in disasters. Von Vollenhoven himself made an important point here. 'If mistakes are made in one study, they will also be taken over by another party involved in the investigations. And, that's not the only issue: in a criminal process, people have the right to remain silent in order not to incriminate themselves, while they enjoy legal protection from the independent Dutch Safety Board if they tell the truth.'  

Scene of the crime

The last word at the symposium went to Pieter van Vollenhoven. He first stressed that the theme of the meeting should not be taken as a comment on the 50-year marriage of himself and Princess Margriet. ‘In spite of the fact that we are now in Leiden again, the city where we met and that therefore was known for a long time as the "scene of the crime",' he joked. He then talked of his personal motivation for becoming involved in advocating that independent studies should be carried out into disasters and accidents. It was a long struggle that did not always make him popular, but that in 2005 eventually became reality, with the foundation of the OVV.  

Pieter van Vollenhoven stressed that the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Dutch Safety Board cannot take over one another's research

People aren't always happy to hear the truth

Van Vollenhoven gave an impassioned speech about the continuing importance of the OVV. ‘It's important to find out how and why a disaster happened so that w can learn from it. But people aren't always happy to hear the truth. In all my  years as chairman of the OVV, nobody has ever said to me: Mr Van Vollenhoven, I'm going to tell you everything we've done wrong all these years.' He believes that ordinary people should also be able to appeal to the OVV. ‘We are living in a time of self-regulation and, as part of that culture, we also leave safety to the sector itself. That can lead to improprieties, which in turn fan the flames of mistrust in the government.' Letting ordinary people raise issues with the OVV could be a means of restoring confidence. 'A democratic country cherishes its investigative journalists, its whistle blowers and its independent Safety Board.'

An impassioned closing address by Pieter van Vollenhoven: ‘Give ordinary people the right to put their concerns to the Safety Board.'
At the reception, the guests of honour and attendees discuss the presentations.
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