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

Published 11 February 2022

Last week, constitutional law blog Verfassungsblog hosted an online symposium titled ‘Decolonisation and Human Rights—the Dutch case’ edited by Asser Researcher León Castellanos-Jankiewicz, who serves as NNHRR Academic Coordinator, and 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 and the 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. 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.

‘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.

Showcasing the NNHRR platform

The online symposium showcased the NNHRR’s platform function by including contributions from academics based in a variety of NNHRR stakeholder institutions including the Asser Institute, the University of Amsterdam, Groningen University, Leiden University, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Maastricht University. Furthermore, NNHRR Research Intern Merel Dinkla also contributed with a written piece.

Attesting to the NNHRR’s effectiveness in harnessing relevant international collaborations, the workshop preceding the online symposium also featured presentations by academics based in institutions outside the Netherlands such as the University of Curaçao, the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney and The City University of New York.

‘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 opening avenues towards that conversation.’

Read the online symposium

Watch the original workshop