The receptor approach: a question of weight and measure

June 13, 2012 - nr.21
Advice request
Government reactions

Mr. F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on Intrnational Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB  The Haque

Date        July 2012
Re           Government response to the AIV's advisory letter on the receptor

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

The government has reviewed the advisory letter ‘The Receptor Approach: a Question of Weight and Measure’, which was published by the AIV in April 2012 on its own initiative. In this response the government addresses the letter’s main recommendations and conclusions. The receptor approach emphasises the universality of human rights, while recognising that their implementation is a national matter. To promote these rights, the approach seeks to harness existing social structures.

A copy of this letter will be sent to the presidents of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

On 29 June 2011 the House of Representatives adopted a motion by Kees van der Staaij, Klaas Dijkhoff, Harry van Bommel and Coskun Çörüz (MPs) on the receptor approach. The government was asked to commission a pilot project on ‘the practicability of the receptor approach in Dutch human rights policy’, with a special focus on ‘what can be done to ensure that a combination of confrontation and dialogue helps increase the effectiveness of Dutch efforts in the area of human rights’. The Minister of Foreign Affairs complied with this request by initiating a pilot project in cooperation with Utrecht University, discussed in a letter to the House of Representatives.1

At the beginning of its advisory letter the AIV states that, although the Minister of Foreign Affairs did not mention the receptor approach in his memorandum ‘Responsible for Freedom’, it appears to be developing into a key concept in human rights policy. The government would like to stress that the receptor approach is indeed part of its set of human rights instruments. The receptor approach is not the only instrument, but it is receiving extra attention.2

The receptor approach
Later in the letter the AIV presents a more in-depth analysis of the government’s 7 March letter to parliament, in which the government set out its views on the receptor approach. The AIV goes on to qualify several aspects of the letter. In what follows, the government will respond to each of these elements individually.

The AIV believes it is very important to think primarily, or at least simultaneously, in terms of a rights-based approach and the associated enforcement mechanisms. The government agrees with the AIV that the rights-based approach is key to promoting human rights. However, the government also believes that ultimately the issue is not the manner in which a country ensures human rights, but the fact that a country does so. In some cases implementation of human rights treaties is more effective via non-legal social and cultural institutions, such as religious and civil society organisations, academics and women’s organisations, at local and regional as well as national level.

With respect to the letter of 7 March the AIV observes that the way in which the term ‘rights-based approach’ is used seems to present an unsustainable contradiction, because even the non-legal implementation of a human right is ultimately based on that right, thus making it ‘rights-based’. Strictly speaking this is true, though the government would like to take this opportunity to emphasise that the definition of ‘rights-based approach’ used in the letter should be understood to mean ‘legal’.

In its advisory letter the AIV observes that taking account of the local context of human rights is not new and that what is now being dubbed the ‘receptor approach’ has long been part of the global human rights debate. The AIV refers in this connection to earlier advisory reports and the government’s responses to them. The government would point out that the receptor approach was added to its set of human rights instruments with a view to drawing more attention to this approach in policy. Less finger wagging, more dialogue and concrete cooperation. Less confrontation, more communication. Less insistence on legislation and individual rights enforceable by law and more use of local sociocultural structures to encourage a societal process aimed at promoting human rights. To this end the government will continue to make balanced use of the whole range of instruments at its disposal. It will guard against a one-sided focus on local culture and traditional institutions, which could marginalise victims of human rights violations involving traditional cultural practices.

The AIV shares the government’s position that countries should be held to account under the treaties they themselves have signed and ratified, but the AIV goes on to argue (rightly) that countries that have not ratified those treaties can and should also be held to account over their human rights records. ‘Universality’ means that the validity of these rights does not depend on the signing or ratification of treaties. As stated in the human rights strategy ‘Responsible for Freedom’ the Netherlands consistently speaks out against gross violations of human rights, like torture, capital punishment and extrajudicial disappearances. The Netherlands condemns serious human rights violations in order to make clear the need to tackle them, and to generate international attention and support. The receptor approach does not rule out reminding countries of their responsibilities in this area. Indeed, with critical yet constructive dialogue, it is possible to broach problems and take steps forward.

The pilot projects
With regard to the proposed pilot projects, the AIV stresses the importance of phrasing the relevant questions correctly and argues that establishing a methodologically sound baseline is necessary from a scientific perspective, even though this seems impossible in practice. The government endorses the view that the formulation of the questions will have a major impact on the evaluation. In an evaluation of this kind, however, it is too simple to posit a direct causal connection between interventions and results. It is therefore realistic to expect no more than to find good leads for testing the validity of the receptor approach.

Finally, the government concurs with the AIV’s suggestion not to limit the project in China to the human rights treaties ratified by that country (e.g. the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), but rather to use the project to seek out openings regarding the implementation of the many treaties it has not ratified, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The government is already in talks with Utrecht University on this point.

In consultation with the chair of the AIV’s Human Rights Committee, we will endeavour to organise a productive dialogue on the receptor approach.

Yours sincerely,

Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs
1 Letter of 7 March 2012.
2 Stenographic report of permanent parliamentary committee meeting on the policy memorandum, p. 84.

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