Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution reads as follows:
All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination […] on any […] grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.
The first article of the Dutch Constitution is devoted to the right to equal treatment that everyone in the Netherlands enjoys and unequivocally states that discrimination is not permitted. This is an instruction to the legislature, the administration, the judiciary and society to treat people equally in equal circumstances when setting rules or taking decisions. Although the articles of the Constitution are not subject to any order of priority in formal legal terms, equal treatment nevertheless forms the basis, the starting point and the first condition for a just society.
In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests were seen across the globe. The people who took to the streets were driven by the brutal death of George Floyd in the United States. Floyd’s death became a symbol of intolerance and injustice, including in the Netherlands. In June 2020, the Dam Square in Amsterdam welcomed thousands of people seeking to call attention to racism as an institutional problem. The serious failings in the childcare benefit system, causing citizens to be labelled frauds merely because of arbitrary characteristics such as nationality, religion or ethnicity, have opened the eyes of the Dutch people to the many-headed monster of discrimination.
The Dutch government heeded this call from society. It spoke with representatives of society and held debates in the Dutch Parliament, which resulted in the appointment of a National Coordinator against Discrimination and Racism. The appointment is not the end, but rather a start. The Dutch government is shouldering its responsibility and is taking steps to arrive at a widely supported view on how to tackle discrimination and racism. Such an approach would put society and Dutch citizens first and would connect and strengthen the Ministries involved and the other stakeholders.
Counteracting discrimination and racism is an enormous task that calls for an approach covering many aspects. At the same time, there is a risk that the approach will become fragmented. Several Ministries are responsible for Dutch antidiscrimination policy. The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations coordinates the antidiscrimination policy in general and local responses in particular. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science coordinates the emancipation policy, focusing on LGBTIQ+ and gender equality, and promotes citizenship and social safety in education. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment endeavors to tackle discrimination in the labor market and to promote a preventive approach to discrimination based on origin, religion or color. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport coordinates efforts towards unhindered participation in society of people with a disability and seeks to counteract discrimination in sports and healthcare. The Ministry is also responsible for WW II commemorations, including for commemorating the Holocaust. Finally, the Ministry of Justice and Security is charged with legal protection of all those residing in the Netherlands. The appointment of the National Coordinator – who is to connect these departments and themes more expressly in collaboration with an interdepartmental steering group – dovetails with a recommendation from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, which calls on the government to “transcend traditional policy silos”. i
A study from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research i reveals that more than twenty-five percent of the Dutch population have recently experienced discrimination. This high rate is sharply at odds with the importance that the Dutch as a society attach to equal treatment, witness the Dutch Constitution. Discrimination causes not only severe personal suffering; society suffers from it as well, as the Netherlands Institute for Social Research has also indicated. “When people experience discrimination, this affects them in one way or another. Some people withdraw from society to some extent; they feel less involved and less motivated to contribute to that society. Other people start feeling insecure, feel unsafe, get stressed or retreat to an environment where they expect they will not encounter discrimination. As such, discrimination impacts not only individuals, but society at large.” Discrimination and racism directly affect people’s health, wellbeing and dignity, thereby precluding fully fledged and equal participation in society.
In the past few years, laws and regulations created in the Netherlands were based on institutionalized distrust among politicians and the government towards citizens. This was apparent, for example, in taxes, social security, youth care/healthcare and education, but in some cases it also turned out to be implicitly directed at specific groups of people in our society. i
This has contributed to a growing breach of trust in society between large groups of citizens and politicians and the government. The question is how the human dimension can be restored and how the system can be changed rather than having citizens go through the mill. How can the government return to serving citizens rather than the other way round? How can we return to putting people first rather than the system? How do we accomplish that human dignity takes center stage in all contact between citizens and the government? How do we create a more inclusive society in which the majority also looks after minorities? How do we increase trust in the institutions of our democratic state under the rule of law and the principles of our fundamental rights, where procedures are in place that are intended to prevent bias and arbitrariness and that do not move away from the human dimension. Where the checks and balances between our institutions are effective and where a fundamental dialogue contributes to careful and transparent balancing in laws and regulations of goals that may be mutually conflicting, but always bearing in mind the rights of minorities.
Living together in diversity brings various challenges to be tackled by the government, as well as other actors and individuals, if this is to become a success. The government’s role ensues from its best-efforts obligation to ensure that citizens can live together in diversity, which entails that the government must foster the bond and mutual understanding between groups of people in society and prevent polarization and mutual alienation. Being subject to a firm obligation to protect all citizens from discrimination and racism, the government must also reflect on its own actions and the effects that the implementation of certain legislation has on specific groups of citizens. The government must lead by example where the above is concerned, putting the bond and trust between citizens and the government first.
This National Program is the first program the National Coordinator against Discrimination and Racism (NCDR) offers to the Government and, as a result, to Dutch society. This National Program reflects a people-oriented approach, which means that people’s experiences take center stage. In the Netherlands we all too often think in terms of bureaucratic processes, whereas issues of racism and discrimination call for a consideration of the lived experiences of individual people and how these experiences affect them.
Eliminating discrimination and racism is a lengthy process. This program is the first in a series and gives impetus to multi-annual coordination in tackling discrimination and racism. This program is not the end; it is the first step in a continuing process. The NCDR seeks to create a wide and permanent connection with society and the Ministries involved with the aim of strengthening the approach to discrimination and racism. The numerous talks and meetings the NCDR has had in recent months show that there is much to be gained on this issue. This is a lengthy process that calls for patience, no matter how hard it may be. The NCDR will continue to identify problems, boost policy efforts, place issues on the agenda and encourage bonding and bridging between society and government.
The Netherlands Institute for Social Research recently advised the government to abandon levels of government, policy silos and structured systems as starting points for its reasoning and to start collaborating with a focus on the task at hand. It recommended that existing structures should not guide decisions, but rather the specific characteristics of the tasks lying ahead. This includes involving citizens and other parties – both public and private parties – needed to arrive at solutions (Reflectie op het regeerakkoord 2021-2025 vanuit het burgerperspectief, Netherlands Institute for Social Research, p. 5).
Ervaren discriminatie in Nederland II, Netherlands Institute for Social Research, 2020, pp. 11 and 12.
See the report Ongekend onrecht (‘Unprecedented Injustice’) of the Childcare Allowance Parliamentary Inquiry Committee and the report Gelijk recht doen (‘Do Equal Justice’) of the Parliamentary Investigative Committee on the Effectiveness of Antidiscrimination Legislation established by the Senate.