[Online symposium] Decolonisation and human rights - the Dutch case

Published 25 January 2022

Public attitudes towards the late colonial experience of the Netherlands have long been ambivalent. @Unsplash

This week, constitutional law blog Verfassungsblog is hosting an online symposium on ‘Decolonisation and human rights in the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ edited by Asser researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz together with PhD researcher Wiebe Hommes (University of Amsterdam). The eleven-part series features contributions of experts in international law, history and political science, which they presented during a recent workshop jointly organised by the Asser Institute, the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR).

The online symposium revisits the decolonisation process in the Kingdom of the Netherlands in relation to the rise of human rights in Dutch law and policy, as outlined in the editor's introduction. It does so from three different angles: citizenship, migration and the constitutional arrangements with former Dutch colonies. It comes as important questions about Dutch colonial legacies and their contemporary implications are being raised in universities, the arts and within several branches of the Dutch government.

Ambivalent public attitudes
Public attitudes towards the late colonial experience of the Netherlands, according to the symposium editors, have long been ambivalent: ‘King Willem-Alexander’s recent apology on behalf of the Dutch government for violence visited on Indonesians during their struggle for independence, came as a very late acknowledgement’, says Castellanos-Jankiewicz, who thinks that this belated recognition is partly due to Dutch voices having dominated the public debate on these issues. ‘That is exactly why our symposium incorporates a variety of actors, geographies and perspectives, - to deliberately step away from the singular focus on the continental Netherlands’, adds UvA researcher Wiebe Hommes.

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz: ‘We show that inequalities resulting from Dutch colonisation continue to persist today’

‘Veil of silence’
The authors think that the ‘veil of silence over this inconvenient past’ has also had serious implications for contemporary Dutch society. Castellanos-Jankiewicz: ‘We see that structural inequality deriving from those repressive attitudes continues to persist today, - especially when we look at migration and the racialised borders of the Netherlands.’

The symposium’s authors say that until now, international lawyers have largely focused on the outward promotion of human rights by the Netherlands as articulated by former Dutch foreign minister Max van der Stoel, on the one hand, and the integration of minorities and the constitutional status of former colonial entities within the Kingdom, on the other.

More recently, however, the role of non-Western actors in the development of human rights standards has been restored in critical academic work, prompting further reflections on the compatibility of the human rights framework with empire.

‘Remake the history of international law’
In her contribution to the online symposium, academic director and chairperson of the executive board of the Asser Institute Janne Nijman highlights the importance of asking new questions. Nijman: ‘It is an understatement to say that the Kingdom of The Netherlands has not examined its colonial past sufficiently in the context of international law. It is high time to expand and remake that history, including in relation to human rights’.

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz: ‘With a self-image built around human rights promotion which sits alongside a long history of overseas exploitation, the Kingdom of the Netherlands holds a unique position in the debate on decolonisation that deserves to be further examined and problematised. This symposium offers plenty of avenues towards furthering that conversation.’

Read the online symposium

Watch the original workshop