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Preliminary findings of country visit to the Netherlands by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion Ahmed Shaheed

5 April 2019

Introduction

I am pleased to have conducted the first ever country visit to the Kingdom of the Netherlands by a UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.  I am grateful for the invitation extended to me by the Government to visit the country from 28 March to 5 April, along with the full cooperation offered to me as I carried out my work which enabled my engagement with myriad stakeholders from different ministries. I am particularly grateful to the relevant staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their ongoing assistance and coordination efforts. I also extend a special thanks to all the interlocutors from civil society organizations, faith-based communities and scholars who have shared their assessment and experiences. I am very appreciative to these interesting and open discussions I have had in The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. While I am pleased to share my initial findings with you today, my final report, together with my recommendations, will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2020.

Country context

The Netherlands is a mature liberal democracy, resolute in its commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, which has enjoyed respect and recognition since the 1579 Union of Utrecht, and now through the country’s 1983 Constitution. 

The State has considered itself neutral in matters of religion or belief since 1796; when the Dutch Reformed Church was disestablished. While this disentanglement from religion is not codified and, quite appropriately, does not prohibit cooperation between the State and religious communities, the country’s legal framework guarantees State neutrality and equal treatment of all communities, regardless of religion or belief.

Cooperative relationships between religious or belief communities and the State are typically established for the purposes of delivering necessary community services, including education or initiatives that promote intercommunal harmony, and the terms of these relationships tend to avoid encroaching on the independence of participating parties.  However, on the one-hand, the principle of State neutrality that has traditionally characterised state-religion relations in the Netherlands is sometimes conflated with secularity, reflecting the increasing secularisation of society. On the other hand, and for the most part associated with minority religious communities, the public manifestation of religion or belief is becoming more visible in other quarters.

Legal framework

The Netherlands is a party to most international human rights treaties as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, and the country’s legal system allows for international treaties to be directly invoked during legal proceedings. 

The law provides for the equal enjoyment of human rights and endeavours to promote the exercise of those rights through a balanced approach;  resolving any tensions engendered by the exercise of some human rights on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, no one focal point in the Government is responsible for ensuring freedom of religion or belief within the Netherlands. This responsibility is, instead, mainstreamed and facilitated by various departments and ministries of the State.  

The 1983 Constitution establishes the principle of equal treatment and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.1 It states, “everyone shall have the right to manifest freely his religion or belief, either individually or in community with others, without prejudice to his responsibility under the law”.2 The constitution also allows for restrictions on religious practices for myriad reasons, including safeguarding against public disorder or health hazards.3   The Constitution also stipulates that public authorities pay equal regard to the religion or belief of all persons with regards to the provision of education, provides for private schools for religious communities, and safeguards against children being “compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents”.4

Provisions for ensuring the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief are framed within the context of ‘non-discrimination on the basis of religion’ and are promoted by the Government’s National Anti-Discrimination Action Programme.

Furthermore, there are no requirements for the registration of faith-based or ideological organizations or associations, and they are exempt from real estate taxes. The country’s Penal Code criminalizes incitement to religious, racial or ethnic hatred through public speech. Prosecution is however rare given the strong commitment to the defence of the right to freedom of expression.

Provisions relating to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

During my visit, I was made aware of no unreasonable restrictions on the rights enumerated in the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief; a consensus document, wherein all UN member states, including the Netherlands have committed to promoting the various elements that constitute the right to freedom of religion or belief. 

This includes, the freedom to worship or assemble in connection with a religion or belief, to establish and maintain places for these purposes in the Netherlands. Interlocutors also indicated that there is currently equal treatment with regards to their ability to the exercise of the rites or customs of a religion or belief but there are indication that this is coming under pressure.

Furthermore, no reports were conveyed to me about unreasonable restrictions on 1981 Declaration’s provisions to: i) ‘establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions’,  ii) ‘write, issue and disseminate relevant publications’, iii) ‘teach a religion or belief in places suitable for these purposes’, iv) ‘ train, appoint, elect or designate religious or belief leaders’, v) ‘observe days of rest and celebrating holidays and vi) ‘establish and maintain communication with individuals and communities in matters of religion or belief at the national and international levels’.

Although no reports of limits on religious or belief groups ‘soliciting and receiving voluntary financial and other contributions from individuals and institutions’ were conveyed to me during my visit, I was made aware that parliamentary discussions are currently underway to determine the possibilities for limiting ‘undesirable funding from unfree sources’ which results in ‘undesirable acts’ or ‘religiously-motivated behaviour contrary to Dutch values and the rule of law’. It is important that any measures taken in this regard are proportionate, fully compliant with international law and the 1981 Declaration, do not impede access to funding for legitimate purposes, and avoid undermining provisions for the equal enjoyment of human rights by all persons, as stipulated by ICCPR Article 27 and the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

Good Practice

During my visit, I noted good practices being fostered and promoted at various levels of the government for advancing the principles of equality, tolerance, respect and inclusivity, in line with the democratic ideals and human rights principles to which the State is committed. Dutch law and policy, avoids establishing any hierarchy of rights, perpetuating the principle that human rights are mutually reinforcing, interrelated and interdependent, to ensure their full enjoyment for all.  Steps, such as the 2013 repeal of the country’s blasphemy law are evident indication of the Government’s ongoing commitment to further promoting this foundational human rights principle.

The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, established in line with the Paris Principles, to critically assess the situation of human rights, including the situation of freedom of religion or belief, and offer recommendations for better addressing emerging issues or individual cases, represents an important institutional commitment to advance human rights.

The Government’s desire to foster dialogue and trust between the State and religious or belief communities at national and local levels is also apparent through its support of various programmes and initiatives. Regional meetings between representatives of local governments, police, anti-discrimination bureaus, and religious communities to discuss ways to improve collaboration are not uncommon.

The Government’s steps to update the National Anti-Discrimination Action Programme in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders that include measures aimed at prevention and awareness raising are also encouraging. The Programme encourages victims to report discrimination; seeks to improve registration, investigation, and prosecution of discrimination; enhances law enforcement; and supports the use of education to counter discrimination.

Police also reportedly receive training on avoiding ethnic or racial profiling under this plan.  The development of a ‘safe mosque’ manual (providing an outline of steps to help ensure a secure environment) in consultation with Islamic organisations, is another positive step. The government has also consulted soccer associations, local authorities, police officials, the prosecutor’s office, and agreed on ways to counter antisemitic chanting, salutes, and other behaviour directed against religious groups during soccer matches.

In the Netherlands, all schools, including private religious institutions, are eligible for State funding and are permitted to determine which materials to use to teach the national curriculum.  The wide-scale national consultations organized to develop the national curricula that promote literacy on universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, and emphasize the enhancement of children’s’ attitudes around ‘global citizenship’ and ‘thriving in a pluralistic society’ are also encouraging.

While more can always be done, these initiatives constitute strong steps forward in facilitating the much-needed interaction among religious or belief communities and between religious or belief communities and the State, in addition to promoting mutual respect between people of different religions or beliefs. I intend to conduct further interviews with municipalities and religious organisations shortly after my visit to assess the impact that these initiatives have had in promoting inclusion among religious and belief communities and combatting intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief.

Issues of concern

Intolerance towards religious practice

Like many mature democracies, the Netherlands is learning how to respond to newer challenges engendered by immigration and responses from various corners of Dutch society to the political, social and economic changes that accompany these periodic shifts in the status quo. Meetings with various members of Dutch society denote increasing intolerance towards the manifestation of religion or belief in the Netherlands in recent years.  

Studies show that over 50% of the Dutch population identify as having no religion, even as an increase of ‘new’ religious norms brought by an ever-diversifying population in the Netherlands takes place. Discussions are underway in the country about whether to adopt a stricter form of secularity, limiting the manifestation of religion or belief in public settings. Some religious interlocutors I met with reported experiences with prohibitions on their ability to conduct activities in some local authority buildings because belief in God was due to be discussed. Others expressed concerns about attempts in Parliament to further restrict freedom of religion or belief, by banning ritual slaughter in accordance with the precepts of Muslim and Jewish communities’ beliefs. Interlocutors I met with also raised concerns about a normalisation of views and language, including political language, which stigmatises certain communities in the Netherlands, making some members of these communities question whether they will ever be considered truly “Dutch”.

Any provision restricting the peaceful practice of religious or belief communities must be proportionate and protect individuals’ right to practice fundamental aspects of their religion or belief. A State also needs to have due regard to its positive obligations towards religious or belief communities. ‘Religious literacy’ must also be ensured at national and local level, including that of government, to prevent unreasonable restrictions on the manifestation of religion or belief. The developments outlined above have not yet resulted in major erosions of freedom of religion or belief but do indicate changes that may foster greater stigmatization and scapegoating of the Muslim, Jewish and other religious or belief communities.

Antisemitism

Members of the Jewish community raised their concerns about ongoing antisemitic incidents in the Netherlands during my visit, noting that police registered 428 and 335 antisemitic incidents in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Incidents in recent years have included the targeting of Jewish objects and antisemitic graffiti on walls; as well as individuals wearing Jewish garments including the kippah. Those wearing religious symbols were sometimes targets of direct confrontations. Members of the Jewish community express concern about hostility towards them in the street and other public spaces, including educational institutions. Some express concerns that if these incidents continue, they would consider emigrating. While the Netherlands had one of the highest reporting rates in the EU of the most serious antisemitic harassment incidents over the past 5 years, there is reason to believe that many incidents go unreported.

Islamophobia

Those monitoring Islamophobic incidents in the Netherlands, noted that anti-Muslim sentiment and harassment in the Netherlands were widespread in the country. The interlocutors I met with expressed an ongoing concern about the risk of attack towards Muslim people and property, including in light of recent incidents of vandalism and defacing of mosques. Members of the Muslim community reported that they are being perceived or stigmatised as terrorists and targeted as such. Such a climate highlights the need for Government to ensure that negative attitudes towards Muslims in society, sometimes encouraged by political parties, do not foster Islamophobic incidents and a sense of alienation in the Muslim community.

Discrimination within the labour market

Some actors I met with reported that religious communities experience discrimination within the labour market. Restrictions imposed in the name of ‘neutrality’ may include prohibiting the wearing of religious dress or symbols, limiting the ability of employees to take time off to observe religious holidays, or refusing to accommodate the employees’ needs to worship during the day. Some institutions allegedly prohibit the wearing of religious symbols – including the hijab or kippah – in the work place.  

Interlocutors also reported that despite high educational attainment levels, some students representing minority religious communities face discrimination and restrictions once entering the labour market. In particular, women representing religious minority communities and wearing religious attire, like the hijab, face frequent discrimination and find it particularly difficult to find employment or gain internships to meet compulsory national curriculum requirements. Such practices can further contribute to the social exclusion of members of religious minorities in the Netherlands, rendering provisions to address potential discrimination necessary.

The Partial Ban on Face-covering Clothing Act

Concern about the Partial Ban on Face-covering Clothing Act, passed by Parliament and due to be enforced on 1 August 2019, was also conveyed to me. A Bill, first introduced in 2005, was adopted in June 2018 by 44 to 31 votes in the Upper House of Parliament. The new law bans face-coverings in some public spaces such as schools, hospitals, public transport, and government buildings. Offenders risk a fine of €400.

Members of the Muslim community have highlighted the impact of such a law would have in perpetuating discrimination against Muslim women in the country and on their ability to carry out normal activities such as picking-up children from school or going for health appointments. Despite very low numbers – estimated to be between200-400 – of Muslim women wearing face veils in the Netherlands, the new law renders government services, including at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, inaccessible for these women. In some instances, those not wearing face-covering clothing employed in the public spaces listed, including public transport, would individually be required to prevent women wearing face-coverings from accessing their service.

Religious Education

The Netherlands provides for religious education in public schools in all religions for which there are a significant number of students and also supports private institutions for religious instruction. Exposure to people from different religious or belief backgrounds is not mandated. Schools also reserve the right to mandate children of a different religion or belief conform to the specified religion or belief of that school and prevent that child from practicing certain elements of their beliefs, including wearing religious symbols.

Groups I met with further indicated a general concern about the children of immigrant background, tending to be Muslim and of lower socio-economic status, sometimes not reaching equal attainment levels and access to higher education as those who do not have this background. Not addressing gaps in this regard risks isolation and alienation in future generations.

Refugee & Asylum issues

A number of concerns were raised during my visit regarding proscriptions on the manifestation of religious beliefs in asylum centres. The Central Body for Accommodating Asylum Seekers’ reportedly ban religious practice in the communal areas of these centres to “avoid inflaming tensions among different religious groups housed together in an already sensitive environment”. Some individuals reported that several Centres interpret these restrictions as being applicable to the private rooms of residents also.  Further concerns about the lack of ‘religious literacy’ and awareness about dynamics between asylum seekers of different beliefs, including non-religious beliefs, or gender/sexuality identity were also raised during my visit. There appears to be no clear understanding or policy on preventing issues between asylum seekers that are perhaps from the same country but have different beliefs when they are housed in the same space.

These issues highlight more prevalent issues unfolding in Dutch society as newer communities of individuals whose beliefs call for frequent public manifestations of the values, rites, and rituals on which their faiths are based, increasingly settle in the Netherlands.  Integration requirements necessitate all immigrants to sign a ‘statement of civil integration’, complete a ‘Dutch integration course’, and pass an ‘integration examination’. While these may be positive measures, some individuals reflected on anxieties about feelings of unacceptance, regardless of efforts to integrate, in a society that makes them feel that they can never quite be included.

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1/ Article 1 of the Constitution of The Netherlands

2/ Article 6 of the Constitution of The Netherlands

3/ ibid

4/ Article 23 of the Constitution of The Netherlands