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Increased pressure on EU values: Rule of Law report on the Netherlands

30 January 2024

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee has been reporting on, monitoring and strengthening the rule of law across wider Europe since the organisation’s inception. Since they were launched in 2020, we have contributed to the European Commission’s annual reports on the state of the rule of law in the European Union, together with other Dutch civil society organisations. This year, the report was written together with Transparency International Nederland, Free Press Unlimited and Nederlands Juristen Comité voor de Mensenrechten (NJCM). We focused on four main topic, as related to our areas of expertise: the justice system, anti-corruption, media pluralism and civic space.

Find the Liberties Rule of Law 2024 report here and our contibution on the Netherlands here.

Overall, we note a worrying trend of increased pressure on rule of law and democratic institutions in the Netherlands, as well as mistrust from the public regarding the independence and impartiality of said institutions.

Justice system

Regarding the justice system, we focused on significant developments that may affect the perception of the general public about the independence of the judiciary, such as the Urgenda climate justice case, and the proceeding of the Dutch Council for Refugees seeking improvement in the quality of the reception of asylum seekers. In both cases, critics argued that judges venture[d] into the realm of politics. An alarming consequence of this worrying sentiment has been the call for imposing further ‘representativeness requirements’ on interest groups representing general interests in lawsuits against the State (‘motie Stoffer’).

We flagged a worrying trend of the profession of legal aid attorneys becoming very unattractive for young legal professionals. Finally, we reported on the study presented by ‘Defence for Children’ on freedom restricting measures in closed and open youth care in the Netherlands, and noted the worrying conclusion of this study that “it is not clear what freedom-restricted measures are and when these measures are pedagogically permissible”.

Anti-corruption framework

Regarding the fight against corruption in the Netherlands, we looked at GRECO’s second compliance report and noted that regulating lobbying activities is still a key point of concern. We recommend that concrete steps be made towards increased transparency, such as introducing a legally binding lobbying register, and strongly urge the government to do more when it comes to post-term employment restriction for public officials.

Furthermore, we concluded that the Netherlands is one of the worst performing countries in the EU as regards to beneficial ownership transparency. While an ultimate beneficial ownership registry exists, a recent study has shown that the Netherlands has consistently denied access to the register – even if journalists and civil society demonstrate their legitimate interest. Ultimately, we conclude that to effectively fight corruption, the Netherlands needs to step away from its current laissez-faire approach and should take up more responsibility in a coordinating role in the battle against money laundering.

Media pluralism and freedom

Concerning media freedom, we voiced concern over media pluralism as the Dutch landscape is characterised by a high concentration of foreign media ownership. This became more prevalent with the recent announcement that DPG Media intends to take over RTL Group. Furthermore, the submission also highlights several threats to press freedom and the safety of journalists, including the recent wiretapping scandal of journalists of de Correspondent by the Public Prosecution Office, transnational repression of both foreign and Dutch journalists, and the continuous criticism of journalists on the functioning of the new Open Government Act (Woo). We also remain concerned about the rise of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), such as the abusive lawsuit against Het Financieele Dagblad, and other forms of legal intimidation on which no specific action has been taken yet by the Dutch government. On the other hand, we have seen positive developments in 2023 too, including increased funding and capacity for the journalist safety initiative Persveilig and the passing of a new law to criminalise doxing.

Civil society

We note that while civic space in the Netherlands is classified as open, it has remained under pressure since the last report.

The motion from the MP Chris Stoffer, outlined above, asked the government to impose further representativeness requirements on interest groups representing general interests in lawsuits against the State. This is yet is another example of the pressure on civic space. The proposal did not only potentially restrict the access of CSOs to a judge, but also questioned the legitimacy and independence of CSOs.

Another worrying trend has been the use of force by the police during peaceful protests. In January 2023, six climate activists from Extinction Rebellion were arrested and their houses were searched. They were arrested the week before a planned peaceful protest. A group of almost 40 civil society organisations spoke out against these arrests, stressing the intimidating effect these arrests can have on people’s ability to exercise their right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. The Dutch National Human Rights Institute also expressed their concerns.

The recent election outcome does raise some concern for the promotion of a rule of law culture in the Netherlands. The PVV, the party that won the elections, has been promoting unconstitutional proposals that do not fit within a democratic rule of law.

This is in particular the case for the plans related to migration, many of which are not in line with international and European human rights treatise. Multiple parties suggest we should revise, ignore or choose and ‘opt-out’ for international and EU legislation and treatise. It remains to been seen if any of these plans will actually be implemented, but it does raise concern in the perspective of a global trend where the legitimacy of international human rights treatise is being called into question.