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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 26 June - 4 July 2014.

04 July 2014

Statement for the press
Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
Netherlands Mission



The Hague, 4 July 2014.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent wishes to thank the Government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for its invitation to visit the country between 26 June and 4 July 2014 to study the situation of people of African descent. We wish to stress that the views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature, our findings and recommendations will be developed more fully when we present our final report to the United Nations Human Rights Council next year. We would like to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions which facilitated this mission.

During the course of this official visit we were able to meet and discuss various issues and challenges with numerous representatives of national and local governments and representatives of civil society including members of communities of African descent in Curaçao and the Netherlands.  Our visits to Willemstad, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Middleburg enabled us to gain a variety of perspectives, which helped us to receive a broad overview of the situation of people of African descent in the country.  The Working Group gained first-hand knowledge about the direct descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, and about recent migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, the Caribbean and other parts of the African Diaspora.   

We would like to acknowledge the existence of high standards of institutions tackling discrimination and promoting equality. We particularly applaud the role and the work of the National Institute for Human Rights, local anti-discrimination agencies and the specific programmes to prevent and combat discrimination in various governmental ministries including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Ministry of Security and Justice, and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.

The Working Group was informed about the work being carried out by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations including the promotion and the implementation of the General Equal Treatment Act, along with the civil and criminal law protection against discrimination. The Ministry also informed us that it is drawing up guidelines for the anti-discrimination services and the municipalities to improve the quality of anti-discrimination services and a media campaign to improve the awareness amongst the public about discrimination and stereotyping.

The Working Group also welcomes measures proposed by the government against employers who knowingly discriminate, including the 'naming and shaming' of companies that undertake discriminatory practices. We were informed that a draft law is being discussed in Parliament and a policy will be implemented next year, whereby the government will cease doing business with companies that have been convicted of discrimination. Our visit to prison and the juvenile detention centers in Curaçao and the Netherlands, revealed the differences in related standards within the Kingdom. At the same time, the facilities we visited in the Netherlands comply with international standards in this field.

We paid particular attention to the area of education, where many problems can be solved or prevented. In the Netherlands and Curaçao, the Working Group noted that the education curriculum did not adequately address the history of the transatlantic slave trade, African enslavement and colonialism. There is also a lack of information in school and university textbooks on African history prior to the slave trade. Contributions of Africans and people of African descent to national and world development continue to be invisible.  We are also concerned about the lack of human rights education, which is fundamental for fostering more harmonious relations within society based on mutual respect and dialogue. 

During the visit to Middleburg, however, the Working Group was very pleased to learn about the work done by the Zeeland Archives on the transatlantic slave trade and enslavement  It urges the government to ensure the research carried out for this project is included in the curriculum and widely disseminated among schools and the public throughout the Kingdom as part of the vital and necessary process for breaking the silence about the country’s role in the slave trade, African enslavement, colonialism and their legacies in contemporary society. 

Despite the high standards in dealing with discrimination and the establishment of institutions promoting equality, the Working Group remains concerned about several issues that continue to seriously affect people of African descent in the Kingdom. In official discourse we hear that discrimination is not tolerated at any level and that equality is guaranteed for all persons, as enshrined in Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution.  However, we observed that racism remains a problem throughout the Kingdom. People of African descent with whom we met expressed their experiences of serious discrimination based on their skin colour. 

The Working Group noted differences in dealing with discrimination and in the implementation of international standards between the Netherlands and Curaçao. In Curaçao, for example, there is no specific legislation on discrimination and cases of racial discrimination against people of African descent are not reported to the authorities.  We are concerned that there is a lack of understanding within society about the manifestations of racism and racial discrimination.  At times, people do not realize that certain behaviour and attitudes can be racist and hurtful to others.
Access to quality and culturally relevant education is invaluable for the empowerment of marginalised groups.  During the visit to Curaçao, the Working Group observed that there were very few opportunities for children to study in the local language, leaving many, including those who speak Papimiento, at a disadvantage.  We are of the view that the education system is often Eurocentric, dominated by the Dutch language, history and literature over local perspectives.  We note that dropout rates are particularly high for boys and are concerned that they may feel alienated from the school environment.   The government has a duty to provide a more relevant and diverse education. Yet we note that most work on local history and culture is being carried out by civil society organisations.  Further, the lack of free tertiary education is discouraging many Curaçaons from aspiring to attend university.

The issue of access to health is also a key concern for many people of African descent.  In Curaçao the Working Group observed, for example, that environmental damage has been caused by an oil refinery, but no support has been provided by the government to address this problem.

The Working Group was informed that citizens coming from a number of countries, notably  Cuban children in Curaçao, are stateless and consequently are not able to enjoy their fundamental rights (e.g in education, health, social care, etc).  We urge the government to revise relevant policies to meet the needs of those people seeking refuge in the country.

Also in Curaçao, the Working Group was informed about the lack of participation in the political process involved in the development of legislation  of the Kingdom. We were also informed about the cutting of funding that would have helped in the fight against discrimination. Curacaons also expressed dissatisfaction that their voice is not heard in the international arena, which would further cement their autonomous status.

The Working Group is concerned about the lack of recognition in the Netherlands of people of African descent as a specific vulnerable group. Indeed, the overarching discourse of equality has rendered people of African descent invisible in the society.  We were informed that there is a ban on the collection of data disaggregated on the basis of race/ethnicity. This results in an inability to recognize and address structural discrimination. The Working Group was introduced to statistical and quality academic research which does indicate the existence of racial discrimination and profiling.

Whilst considering the EU Regulation on Data Protection, the Working Group emphasises the importance of such data when collected in a responsible manner which respects human rights and privacy.

The Working Group is concerned about the practice of racial profiling by the police in the Netherlands. The lack of statistical evidence makes this practice difficult to prove; yet civil society organisations observed and reported troubling accounts of such practices in their daily lives.  This, it is argued, results in disproportionately high rates of harassment, arrests and imprisonment, including of people of African descent.  We are concerned that this creates feelings of mistrust in law enforcement bodies among communities and discourages them from accessing help when they themselves are victims of crime or rights abuses. 

The Working Group notes that measures taken in the wake of the economic crisis are having a particularly devastating impact on the fight against racism and discrimination.  Financial cutbacks have led to significantly reduced funding for civil society organisations including those working on important projects and racism.  This, we fear, will lead to a loss of important knowledge which is invaluable for designing responsive policies and programmes to address racial discrimination and inequality affecting people of African descent.  It also prevents civil society organizations from being able to participate in international and regional processes.

Discrimination against people of African descent in the area of employment remains a concern.  The workforce does not reflect the true diversity of society. Surinamese and Dutch Antillean people face rates of unemployment three times higher than that of native Dutch people. Further, reports have shown that employment agencies are discriminating in the selection of applicants when requested.  The Working Group stresses the need for a legislative framework to address this problem. 

Since the 1960s, with the independence of former colonies, concerns around non-European immigration have been expressed in racialised terms.   We are concerned that the new political relations between Curaçao and the Netherlands, agreed in 2010 have a significant impact on immigration experiences of Curaçaons to the Netherlands.   We note in particular the differential treatment of Curaçaon citizens at Dutch borders. We are particularly worried that the so-called Bosman Act aims to minimize the rights of Dutch Antilleans.

The Working Group is concerned that there appears to be a global shift in the attention towards racial discrimination which is illustrated in the removal of affirmative action from the legislation and inclusion of minorities from the legislation, in funding of NGOs and consultation with civil society to address their concerns in favour of a more individualistic attention their concerns.

The Working Group was informed that there is a heightened xenophobic and racist attitude against migrants and refugee communities including many people of African descent.  The media have played a role in exacerbating fears around housing and employment using migrants as scapegoats for the negative impact that the crisis has had on Dutch people.  While respecting the freedom of the press, the Working Group urges the government to take steps to ensure no media outlet engages in incitement to racial, religious or xenophobic hatred that could lead to further rights violations of migrant communities. 

We would like to draw attention to the situation of women of African descent many of whom face multiple forms of discrimination based on their gender and ethnic origins and negative image and stereotyping they face.

It is a fact that no country is free of racism and the Netherlands is not an exception. But for a country that has long been perceived as having a long tradition of tolerance and openness, the silence around racism and racial discrimination is surprising and worrying, It affects the awareness and sensibilities around cultural traditions and cultural diversity in the Kingdom as exemplified in recent debates around the Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) celebration.

Following concerns raised by civil society and a number of UN Special Procedures about the Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas festival, we were surprised that many people could not see where the problems lie, or that the presentation might be perceived negatively, or would be considered offensive by another part of the Dutch society.  We are aware that Sinterklaas is one of the most popular traditions in the Netherlands and that it is an important family tradition; but education of children around the problematic aspects need to be addressed. The Working Group is pleased that the issue is now being seriously discussed at the national level and we hope for a continuation of discussion where both sides are heard and listen to each other.

Cultures and traditions are not static – they change in response to evolving contexts.   We were pleased to learn about the work being done by the City of Amsterdam to change the image of Black Pete and discussions that the Ministry of Social Affairs and Development will facilitate among several societal organisations with a view to find a joint agreement.
 We also invite the media, particularly the social media, to adopt a respectful and responsible tone during these discussions. We also welcome the court decision concerning the need to reasess the license granted for the entry of Sinterklaas last year in the city.

The Working Group would like to reiterate our satisfaction at observing the government’s willingness to engage in positive dialogue, cooperation and action to combat the historic legacy of racism and discrimination against people of African descent.  We understand that this is a long process and not one that can be achieved immediately.  We hope that the recommendations we will elaborate in our report will support the government in this important process and we express our willingness to accompany the country as it continues to work hard for racial equality.

Finally, we believe it is important to develop a broad national policy which specifically focuses on the discrimination and inequality affecting people of African Descent.  We would also encourage the government to raise awareness among the public and government officials alike about the international decade for people of African descent.