The Human Rights Policy of the Dutch Government: identifying constants in a changing world

May 12, 2011 - nr.73

Final remarks

A number of policy recommendations have been set out above. Since they are included at the end of each block of text, in a distinct layout, the AIV considers it unnecessary to repeat them here. The AIV would, however, like to reflect on a number of themes that were mentioned only indirectly in the Parliamentary Papers consulted, and that are nonetheless key to a proper appreciation of the AIV’s intentions and train of thought.

  • The AIV was struck by the fact that during the parliamentary debates, the government frequently described human rights as ‘moral obligations’. The AIV would point out that many of these obligations are laid down in legally binding international instruments or even peremptory law. In the AIV’s view, it would be fitting for the government, given that it has on more than one occasion professed its staunch support for the international legal order, if it were to conduct debates both in national and international arenas on the basis of the accumulated body of international law and the related arguments based on law. To put it more strongly, promoting international law seems to be such an intrinsic characteristic of the Netherlands, that the government is, as it were, disavowing the very nature of our country if it does not conduct debates in this manner – though admittedly, arguments from international law are not at all times and in all places the last or only answer.1
  • The connection between human rights and other policy areas is essential, as the government has argued strongly and the AIV has fully agreed. In the Netherlands’ first major human rights policy document, published in 1979, human rights were described as ‘an essential element’ of Dutch foreign policy. In its policy conclusions, however, it adds that the government will exert itself to promote human rights ‘without inflicting unacceptable damage on other values and interests that it is obliged to defend’.2 So although this has a familiar ring to it in the light of recent parliamentary debates, there is nothing new about it. Similar views inspired previous governments to speak of the ‘decompartmentalisation’ of foreign policy, an idea, it may be recalled, that led among other things to the formation of the AIV. The many years of neglect of the role that the economy might play in promoting human rights can be explained in part by the East-West conflict, but also by the habit of thinking too often in terms of sectors or policy areas that at most touched tangentially. Something similar appears to apply to the present Dutch government, as discussed in this advisory report under the heading of ‘Policy coherence’. In this context it should be noted that many who are active in the international economic and financial world still seldom think of protecting human rights in their day-to-day activities, nor are they keen on cooperating with human rights specialists, whom they view as moralistic and lacking in pragmatism. On that level, there is a great deal to be gained on many sides.
  • In formulating objectives for the Dutch government’s human rights policy, the AIV might have chosen to take the 1979 policy document or later policy documents, such as the most recent one from 2007 (‘Human Dignity for All’), as its fixed frame of reference. It decided against doing so, because times and political views change and should change. For instance, the 1979 document dwells at length on the subject of human rights and East-West relations, and although it does mention the role of NGOs it emphasises ways of protecting them against attacks by governments, while today these organisations play a far greater role, including − and especially – in efforts to ensure global observance of human rights. Furthermore, each new government has the right to set new priorities. Nonetheless, what this advisory report seeks to underscore is the importance of maintaining the core message of human rights policy documents as a constant factor in Dutch policy. Perusal of recent Parliamentary Papers suggests that on paper there may well be little change planned in the main contours of Dutch foreign policy in the area of human rights. The essential point is that in specific situations, human rights – in the narrow sense or in interaction with other policy areas − should be accorded at least as much importance as other aims, even if it is inconvenient in the short term.
  • Finally, one’s effectiveness in the outside world will be boosted if one’s own actions can withstand scrutiny reasonably well: ‘Practise what you preach.’ This principle has been invoked briefly a number of times in the House of Representatives and in this advisory report, and was explicitly endorsed by the government during the debate on the budget. This is a principle that no one would spontaneously dispute. The question is how far it extends and when it is relevant. For example, the government’s plans to review conventions and directives in the realm of asylum and migration prompt – objectively – the question of how this may affect the Netherlands’ international credibility. This question cannot be answered as things stand, and the answer largely depends in any case on the perspective adopted. Even so, the AIV would advise the government, in shaping its domestic policies on asylum and migration – in all their diverse aspects, some of which potentially impinge on fundamental rights while others focus on improving integration and hence on promoting the interests of asylum seekers and migrants – to keep a sharp eye on how these policies affect the policy objective, to which the government has also expressed its commitment, of promoting the international legal order. Although these two lines of action may be compatible in a formal, legal sense, the AIV believes that the plans announced by the government in the sphere of asylum and migration will seriously impact on – and challenge – the external effectiveness and credibility of the government’s human rights policy, and from this point of view deserve to be given continuous and serious attention.


1 See also Willem van Genugten and Nicola Jagers, ‘Land veroveren gaat niet vanzelf: over de permanente en inherente spanning tussen internationaal recht en (internationale) politiek’, (‘Ground isnot gained so easily: on the permanent and inherent tension between international law and internationalpolitics’); forthcoming in the March issue of Nederlands Juristenblad; A. van Staden, Between the Ruleof Power and the Power of Rule: In Search of an Effective World Order (Leiden/Boston: Martinus NijhoffPublishers, 2007).
2 ‘De rechten van de mens in het buitenlands beleid’ (‘Human Rights in Foreign Policy’), ParliamentaryPapers 1978-1979, 15571, nos. 1-2, pp. 6, 100. 
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