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Home » 2. Acknowledgement and prevention

2.1 Introduction

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin

In the Netherlands, everyone is equal before the law. Having said that, we sometimes see the opposite in practice. Not everyone has the same opportunities and more than one in four Dutch people have experienced discrimination. i Individuals or groups of people are treated differently, come second or are excluded from full participation in society based on personal characteristics or other features. This is seen in interaction between citizens themselves, but the government may also be guilty of discrimination against citizens.
If the government is to change this and prevent discrimination, it must first acknowledge that – and to what extent – discrimination exists and what forms it may take: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, antisemitism, anti-Black racism, discrimination against Muslims and other forms of exclusion.

For too long, the Dutch government and Dutch society have argued that institutional discrimination does not exist and hoped that this problem would simply disappear if they looked away. At the same time, people were afraid to publicly address the issue of racism. As people in the Netherlands are accustomed to seeking consensus, it takes time to bring about change. But looking away does not yield any benefits for us as a society. The time has come to abandon this attitude and accept that discrimination causes suffering and loss in our society as well. If we do so, we demonstrate that we as a society are becoming mature and that we have started to take a serious stance towards the non-discrimination principle underpinning our Constitution and society. Acknowledgement indicates growth of our society and is the first step in tackling discrimination.

A large part of society also demands this acknowledgement by organizing demonstrations, establishing interest groups and initiatives and drawing up manifestos. Groups of people suffering from prejudicial treatment are making their voices heard and are claiming their rightful place in our society.

We should also appreciate and acknowledge that history is not always written objectively and is made from a presumed ‘objective’ academic perspective, which produces a one-sided and incomplete picture that does not do justice to the experiences of different groups in Dutch society. We need to allow for history lessons of different groups of people in the Netherlands and we need to know about our shared history if we are all to be effectively equal and to be treated as such. Events to be considered here include the history of slavery, the Holocaust, Roma and Sinti, the Moluccan community, guestworkers, the LGBTIQ+ community, the Asian community, and the emancipation of women and people with a disability.

Politicians are also increasingly interested in this issue. The National Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism was appointed in April 2021, followed by the appointment of the NCDR in late 2021 and the appointment of the Government Commissioner for Sexually Transgressive Behavior and Sexual Violence in April 2022. The Government will present a national action plan to combat sexually transgressive behavior and sexual violence in the autumn of 2022, the outlines of which were shared with the Dutch Parliament on June 27, 2022. i The Government has also recently agreed to the establishment of a State Commission against Discrimination and Racism, which will investigate the extent of discrimination and racism in the Netherlands. The investigation will cover all sectors of society and will include an audit to identify ethnic profiling and discrimination within the government. The State Commission will draft its own working program and, for this purpose, will consult with all relevant actors, including the NCDR. The NCDR identifies signs in society and shares his views and suggestions for investigations with the State Commission. This testifies to the Government’s intention to safeguard these themes within the government and to address the issues in a comprehensive way.

The coalition agreement also acknowledges that the discrimination issue is a social problem: “We want everyone in the Netherlands to be able to be free. Free to be who they are. Free from discrimination and racism. Free to develop themselves. It still happens too often that people in the Netherlands are given fewer opportunities or are excluded on the basis of their origin, gender, color, race, age, beliefs, sexual orientation or disability. This is unacceptable.” i

Acknowledgement may take many forms. The Netherlands boasts a strong tradition of commemorating events, for example. Acknowledging that suffering and loss were caused in the past may help society to collectively deal with this fact. Events in this context include the Remembrance of the Dead on May 4 and Liberation Day (May 5), the Holocaust remembrance and the celebration and commemoration of the abolishment of slavery during Keti Koti.

It is necessary to truly take responsibility when the government itself caused the suffering and loss. This was the case, for example, with the involuntary sterilization of transgender people until 2014. On November 27, 2021, the Government apologized for the former Gender Change Act, which was in force from 1985 until 2014. Then Minister Dekker for Legal Protection said at the time: “I hope our apology will contribute to wider social acknowledgement of this suffering.”

We are seeing a social movement towards the more express acknowledgement of the Dutch history of slavery. The municipal authorities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, for example, apologized for the active involvement of city authorities in the commercial system of colonial slavery and the global trade in enslaved people. “Only if we listen to each other attentively can we arrive at a new perspective on our common past – a new narrative where everyone truly has their place and in which we work towards an equal society together,” said Linda Nooitmeer (Nationaal instituut Nederlands slavernijverleden en erfenis, the national institute for the Dutch history of slavery and legacy) in response to the apology that Mayor Halsema had made in the name of the Amsterdam city authorities. The authorities of The Hague are also considering offering an apology; in other countries, cities such as London, Liverpool, Chicago and Charleston have already apologized. Other levels of government, such as the provinces, are also taking a critical look at their role in history. The province of Noord-Holland, for instance, was the first Dutch province to apologize for its role in the history of slavery during the regional Keti Koti celebration and commemoration in Haarlem on July 1 this year. i

Apart from cities that are taking or considering taking this step, there are other social and commercial actors that participate in this movement towards acknowledgement. At this year’s national Keti Koti celebration and commemoration, the Dutch Central Bank apologized for its role in the history of slavery and set up a fund for long-term projects that help reduce the effects of the history of slavery. i ABN AMRO was the first commercial bank to offer an apology.

Mensen in de metro te Amsterdam

The NCDR has received numerous responses to the serious failings in the childcare benefit system. In town hall sessions where discussions centered on how the government should tackle institutional discrimination, the answer was often that it all starts with acknowledgement. This process is only initiated if the government is truly receptive to signs of discrimination in society. Next, it must have the will to adopt an attitude of critical self-reflection, which entails taking a critical look at laws, policies, processes and the workplace environment. The question to be asked here is whether certain laws and policies might lead to the exclusion of some people or groups of people or to them being hit disproportionately. The first steps have now been taken. In February, the Government launched a round of consultations to gain a better understanding of constrictive laws and rules. Every Ministry examines the relevant laws and rules and does so in various ways, for example by engaging with organizations implementing these laws and rules. And, on June 14, 2022, the Parliamentary Investigative Committee on the Effectiveness of Antidiscrimination Legislation established by the Senate published its investigation report Gelijk recht doen (‘Do Equal Justice’) about the options the legislature has at its disposal to combat discrimination more effectively. i

The lack of countervailing power and reflection has created problems for groups of people in our society due to the effects of certain laws and policies that encouraged exclusion and systemic discrimination.

This chapter addresses current policy and policy interventions aimed at acknowledging and preventing discrimination and racism.

Ervaren discriminatie in Nederland II, Netherlands Institute for Social Research, 2020.

[1] Parliamentary Documents II 2021-2022, 34 843, no. 58.

Looking out for each other, looking ahead to the future, 2021-2025 Coalition agreement – People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Christian Democratic Alliance (CDA), Democrats ’66 (D66) and Christian Union (CU), p. 29.