Human Rights

Polishing the Present, Dodging the Past

On 10 December Minister of the Interior Ronald Plasterk presented a National Human Rights Action Plan to  parliament. This is a first for the Netherlands, and in doing so it joined a select group of 28 other nations (including, interestingly enough China, Nigeria, and Venezuela). The report – neatly issued on the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – confirms that the HR situation here is pretty solid, and that this provides crucial credibility for the promotion of human rights abroad as a central part of Dutch foreign policy. Nothing unexpected here.  Some areas of concern – discrimination in the labour market, information privacy, the treatment of immigrants, violence in the home – but on the whole a clean sheet.

Yet for all the positive, self-reflective motives behind this move, how far does it really go? There are plenty of blind spots. Five days before the report’s publication was the Sint Niklaas celebration, with its ‘harmless’ black peter ribaldry that had attracted the ire of the UN Human Rights Committee’s advisors earlier in the year. This cause celebre brought out the classic Dutch retort to any criticism – ‘We know what we are doing, there is no need to get upset. And if you do get upset, well, you just don’t understand our culture.’ Nice self-defeating exclusionary logic.

Human Rights

Ok, too trivial maybe. But there are more telling examples buried in the past. In June 2012 three prominent Dutch research institutes (Military History, War Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the KITLV) requested €1.8m for a comprehensive study of the military record during the independence war of Indonesia in 1945-49. The goverment’s reply was negative. One of the MPs who supported the move was Frans Timmermans. A second attempt this year – this time with Timmermans on the government side, as Foreign Minister – resulted in another negative. Timmermans spun his 180 degrees neatly by declaring that there was no support within Indonesia itself for such a potentially disrupting study, and it would upset the existing positive relations between the two nations.

This twin-rejection flies in the face of a gradual, albeit painful opening up on the violence of that war. Foreign Minister Ben Bot had already declared in 2005 that the Netherlands had been “on the wrong side of history” in its attempt to keep the colony. At the end of 2011 the government did apologize for the massacre at Rawagede, where 400 locals were shot in 1947. Details on the excessive use of force are gradually leaking out to reveal not occasional but widespread occurrences.


But for all the well-meaning attitude of the government, there are places in the past and the present that the Human Rights Action Plan won’t reach. With respect to Ben Bot, the Dutch tend to see themselves consistently and firmly on the right side of everything. Anyone who questions this is irrelevant. Or disruptive. Unnecessary. Definitely an outsider. After all, in the end, ‘we know what we are doing’. Just ask that black pete guy.