[Workshop] Decolonisation and human rights in the Kingdom of the Netherlands

14 October 2021
  • Starts at: 09:00h
  • Fee: Free
  • Venue: T.M.C. Asser Instituut (and online)
  • Organiser: T.M.C. Asser Instituut and the Amsterdam Center for European Law and Governance

When King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands formally apologised last year for the Dutch violence visited on Indonesians during their struggle for independence, it came as a late acknowledgement of this particular moment in Dutch history. It was also illustrative of a broader trend: if recent societal debates and movements confronting imperial legacies have made one thing clear, it is how former colonial powers only reluctantly and recently have come to address their violent past. 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 this debate that deserves to be further examined and problematised.

In this workshop, we seek to critically engage with decolonisation in the Dutch context by focusing on its specific nexus with human rights. Until now, the academic debate has focused on the foreign policy and outward promotion of human rights by the Netherlands, 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, prompting critical reflections on the compatibility of the human rights framework with empire, including their modes of co-existence with unequal post-colonial structures.

We seek to address these questions by transposing them to the context of the Dutch decolonisation process. In doing so, we seek to disentangle the relation between decolonisation and human rights in the context of the Kingdom of the Netherlands from different points of view and critically reflect on the legacies and contemporary implications of this interaction. By incorporating different contexts, perspectives and voices, we deliberately step away from a singular focus on the continental Netherlands and engage with postcolonial frameworks to understand the relation between empire and human rights in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Watch the recording


08:30 - 09:00: Coffee and registration

09:00 - 09:15: Welcome from Janne Nijman (Asser Institute)

09:15 - 09:45: Opening remarks by Marco Duranti (University of Sydney, Department of History) and Wiebe Hommes (University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance). Chair: León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (Asser Institute)

09:45 - 10:00: Coffee break

10:00 - 11:45: Panel 1: Human rights in the shadow of empire. Speakers: Boyd van Dijk (University of Melbourne, Melbourne Law School), Anne-Isabelle Richard (Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities) and Stef Scagliola (Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History). Comment: Antoon de Baets (University of Groningen, Faculty of Arts). Chair: Wiebe Hommes (University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance). 

11:45 - 13:00: Lunch

13:00 - 14:45: Panel 2: Decolonisation, citizenship and rights. Speakers: Guno Jones (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Law), Karin van Leeuwen (Maastricht University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and Ryçond Santos do Nascimento (University of Curaçao, School of Law). Comment: Michael Sharpe (York College of The City University of New York, Department of Behavioural Sciences). Chair: León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (Asser Institute).

14:45 - 15:00: Coffee break

15:00 - 16:45: Panel 3: Migration and movement. Speakers: Saskia Bonjour (University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences), Stefan Salomon (University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities) and Thomas Spijkerboer (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Law). Comment: Tamar de Waal (University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Law). Chair: Renske Vos (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Faculty of Law). 

16:45 - 17:15: Concluding remarks by León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (Asser Institute)

Panel abstracts

Panel 1: Human rights in the shadow of empire

In this panel, we seek to shed light the relation between human rights and the imperial legacy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Although the Dutch Empire formally ended after the Second World War, it continued to cast its long shadow in the decades to come. We would like to assess and unpack the relationship of that legacy to human rights. In particular, we seek to problematise the image which often recurs, of how human rights simply ‘did not seem to matter’ in this period. Instead, we seek to draw attention to how human rights were often made not to matter. Conversely, we seek to bring together insights and reflections on the usages of human rights in a variety of contexts, such as the struggle for independence of former colonies, the implications of the imperial legacy on Dutch approaches to the creation and application of human rights instruments, and the different meanings human rights took on in various contexts within the Kingdom.

Panel 2: Decolonisation, citizenship and rights

This panel addresses the tensions and contradictions between the exclusive concept of citizenship and the cosmopolitan idea of human rights and their uneasy coexistence within the postcolonial Dutch state. The need for political recognition within the community—the state—as a precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms seems counterintuitive to our contemporary universalistic understanding of human rights. But ever since the French Revolution, rights have been attached to citizenship, and the construction of political inclusion in societies has closely followed the model of the national state. Indeed, the close association between fundamental rights and the concept of ‘national’ citizenship has also created unresolved tensions between the unitary nation-state and its non-national components such as minorities and sub-national groups. The panel will explore the legacies these tensions by exploring the making of citizenship in the Dutch postcolonial state, and its relationship to human rights. Moreover, it will also address the constitutional arrangements between the Netherlands and former colonies, particularly as regards the latter’s inhabitants.

Panel 3: Migration and movement

This panel explores the heritage of colonialism in migration and movement between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and its colonial holdings paying special attention to the distinctive experiences in both the East and West Indies. As nativist and populist movements have entered mainstream political discourse, governments now routinely adopt discriminatory attitudes towards citizens and legal residents belonging to minorities who trace their provenance to migratory flows. This trend is illustrated with the Windrush scandal, where de facto British citizens of Caribbean heritage were threatened with deportation from the UK. These pernicious trends illustrate how the failure to belong to the ‘dominant’ nation within a state can result in discrimination and the erosion of equal treatment despite long-standing human rights safeguards. Participants in this panel will explore whether this phenomena are due to the impact of imperial legacies on the international regimes of migrant and refugee protection, and will focus on the attitudes of the Dutch state towards inhabitants of former colonies in this regard.

Conveners: León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (Asser Institute) and Wiebe Hommes (Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance)

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