The Netherlands is a parliamentary democracy with a strong record of safeguarding political rights and civil liberties. Nevertheless, Muslims and immigrants experience harassment and discrimination, and polarization around cultural identity issues has increased. Harsh asylum policies are a source of controversy. The Kingdom of the Netherlands also has overall responsibility for human rights compliance on six Caribbean islands. Corruption, prison conditions, and asylum policies are of concern on the islands.
- In January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and his cabinet resigned over a scandal stemming from the collection practices of the Tax and Customs Administration (Belastingdienst). Official investigations into the Belastingdienst, which wrongly accused tens of thousands of families of fraud, continued throughout the year.
- The VVD won a plurality of seats in the already scheduled March parliamentary elections. The previous coalition renewed a governing agreement in December, following a record 271 days of negotiations, allowing Rutte to retain his position; the new government was not sworn in before year’s end.
- Numerous protests took place across the country during the year, many of which were marked by violent confrontations between demonstrators and police. In several instances, police were accused of using disproportionate force to disperse demonstrations, resulting in criminal charges being filed against at least three officers by year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The Netherlands is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The government is formed by the parliament after elections.
In January 2021, the coalition government—composed of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the Democrats 66 (D66), and the Christian Union —resigned in the wake of a scandal that saw the nation’s tax agency wrongly accuse tens of thousands of families of fraud. The Rutte cabinet served in a caretaker role until a new government could be formed following the already scheduled March general election; the VVD won a plurality of seats in those polls. In December, the outgoing coalition agreed to form another government after a record 271 days of negotiations, with Rutte retaining his position for a fourth term. He had not been sworn in by year’s end.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The bicameral States General consists of the 75-seat First Chamber, elected indirectly by the members of the 12 provincial councils, and the 150-seat Second Chamber, members of which are directly elected to serve four-year terms. In the March 2021 elections, the VVD won a plurality of seats on a turnout of 78.7 percent.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Elections are administered by the Electoral Council, which works impartially and professionally. Voting procedures were adapted ahead of the March 2021 parliamentary elections to improve accessibility for people with disabilities and to incorporate COVID-19-related public health measures.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties operate freely. The Elections Law does not impose any undue restrictions on the creation of political parties and the registration of candidates for elections.
Government funding extends to all parties with at least 1,000 members and at least one seat in the parliament.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The composition of ruling coalitions regularly changes after elections.
A record 17 parties entered the Second Chamber following the March 2021 elections, including 4 new parties: JA21, which emerged following a split from the controversial far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) party; Volt, a pro–European Union (EU) party; the Farmer-Citizen-Movement (BBB); and the left-wing BIJ1.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
The people are free to make their own political choices without pressure from democratically unaccountable groups.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Marginalized groups participate freely in the political process. Several political parties specifically cater to the (perceived) interests of religious groups or ethnic minorities. Underrepresentation in politics of persons without higher education is sometimes identified as a problem.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
Government policies reflect the choices of freely elected members of the parliament. Inordinate influence of corporate interests over government policies continued to be criticized by investigative journalists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Following the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, the parliament issued a motion in September condemning the government for its failure to adequately protect people in the country who had previously worked with Dutch organizations, prompting the resignations of the foreign and defense ministers.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
The Netherlands has low levels of corruption, and anticorruption mechanisms are generally effective.
In response to the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) 2019 recommendation to strengthen integrity safeguards for parliamentarians, the Second Chamber created a Code of Conduct in September 2020. Legislation establishing an independent complaints body, which is tasked with addressing Code of Conduct violations, came into effect in April 2021.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Laws recognizing the right to request government information are generally enforced, although delays in responding to requests for information are common. In 2021, the parliament passed the Open Government Act (WOO), which requires the government to make documents available online rather than by request; the WOO had not entered into force by year’s end.
During 2020, reports emerged about significant malpractice regarding Belastingdienst collection processes, including illegal practices involving childcare allowances, beginning in 2012. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) concluded that discriminatory use had been made of data on the (double) nationality of certain applicants. In December 2020, a special parliamentary committee reported that families were punished illegitimately, and, when legitimate, to disproportionate extremes.
In May 2020, the government asked the public prosecutor to investigate Belastingdienst officers for extortion and discrimination. The public prosecutor declined in January 2021, saying the matter was political rather than criminal. An appeal against that decision was launched in April and remained undecided at year’s end. Criminal complaints of discrimination and extortion filed against specific tax officers were also investigated during the year.
Throughout 2021, numerous politicians and government officials advocated for a change in the country’s “culture of governance” to increase transparency and enhance public trust. Rutte and his cabinet resigned in January over the Belastingdienst scandal, citing a wish to take responsibility for mistakes made “at every level of the state.” In March, the cabinet informed lawmakers that the Belastingdienst had violated a wide range of laws and regulations, sometimes systematically. Such violations include persistently exceeding decision deadlines and withholding information from both citizens and the judiciary. Investigations into the matter remained ongoing at year’s end.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the Dutch tax-collection agency systematically violated laws and regulations over the course of several years, falsely accused residents of fraud, and withheld information from the public.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
A free and independent press thrives in the Netherlands. However, journalists occasionally face isolated instances of harassment, and several members of the press reported being threatened and physically attacked while reporting on antigovernment demonstrations during 2021. In July, well-known crime reporter Peter de Vries was murdered; two men were later arrested in connection with the killing, which was reportedly linked to de Vries’s investigation into an organized crime network.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. A prohibition of burqas and niqabs in public establishments and on public transport came into force in August 2019. However, a report by de Volkskrant showed that no fines had been issued at all as of October 2020.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is largely respected in the Netherlands.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are no restrictions on freedom of speech or expression, apart from the criminalization of hate speech. In July 2021, the Supreme Court upheld the 2016 hate-speech conviction of FvD politician Geert Wilders, who had called for the reduction of the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands at a campaign rally in 2014.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected by authorities. The government restricted assembly rights periodically throughout both 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. Despite such restrictions, several large protests were held in 2021, including nationwide demonstrations by environmental activists in March. Limitations placed on participants varied significantly between cities, leading some protest organizers to lodge formal complaints against the restrictions, which they said unduly suppressed their right to protest.
Thousands of people participated in demonstrations against the government’s lockdown measures during the year. Many of these antilockdown protests turned violent, resulting in dozens of arrests; several were forcibly dispersed by police, who were accused of using disproportionate force in numerous instances. Internal police investigations concluded that a number of officers had acted “unprofessionally,” and criminal charges were filed against at least three officers accused of using excessive force against demonstrators by year’s end.
Police were also accused of using disproportionate force to violently disperse peaceful protests against a lack of affordable housing in September and October; several people were injured and dozens of demonstrators were arrested during the protests.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs operate freely and without interference from the government or nonstate actors.
A draft bill proposed in 2020 would enable local authorities and prosecutors to gather information from NGOs on any foreign funding that they receive. In response to concerns over the law’s potentially discriminatory application, amendments to the draft bill were made in June 2021. The draft would broaden the scope of the review process to include all donations of at least €15,000 ($15,800), regardless of their origin.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers’ rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike are protected.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
The right to a fair trial is legally guaranteed and respected in practice. Though a COVID-19-related case backlog arose in 2020, extra judicial capacity had been allocated to address the situation by that June; nearly 70 percent of the backlog was resolved by February 2021.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
The police are under civilian control, and prison conditions mostly meet international standards. In early 2021, inmates in several prisons were temporarily quarantined in response to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases; lawyers criticized the measures, which included a prohibition on showering, citing concern for the welfare of the prisoners.
Substandard prison conditions continued to be reported on Caribbean islands under the jurisdiction of the Netherlands, notably including Sint Maarten.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The Netherlands has antidiscrimination laws and hate speech laws on the books. In 2021, the government introduced the position of national coordinator against racism and discrimination. The national coordinator, who began work in October, is tasked with creating a national antidiscrimination program.
Rising anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years has been accompanied by more open expression of anti-Islamic views. Muslims and people with a migrant background experience harassment and intimidation. Persistent labor market discrimination on ethnic grounds, of older people, of pregnant women, and of disabled people continued to be documented in 2021.
Antisemitism in the Netherlands has risen in recent years, with one NGO reporting a 35 percent increase in antisemitic incidents between 2020 and 2021. In April 2021, the government appointed Eddo Verdoner as national coordinator for combating antisemitism (NCAB).
In September 2021, a Dutch court ruled that security forces could use ethnicity as a factor in selecting individuals for security checks at the border. Rights groups condemned the verdict as “harmful,” and vowed to appeal. In November, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee—a gendarmerie that performs border controls—announced that it would no longer use ethnic profiling when conducting security checks.
Dutch asylum policies have long drawn criticism for being unduly harsh. In June 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that by refusing to consider the claims of applicants who had previously been rejected over documentation concerns, Dutch asylum policies were incompatible with EU law.
Additionally, the UN Human Rights Committee has urged the government to review its legislation and establish a procedure for determining statelessness in recent years. In February 2021, a parliamentary vote moved to allow roughly 10,000 stateless refugees to apply for Dutch citizenship; however, implementation of the motion was delayed several times before being carried out in July.
The Caribbean islands that are part of the Netherlands lack well-developed asylum procedures. NGOs continue to call for more government action to support Venezuelan refugees on Aruba and Curaçao. In March 2021, authorities in Curaçao announced that undocumented migrants meeting certain conditions would be allowed to apply for residence permits. Curaçao’s justice ministry also announced in June that aid workers and relatives would be given access to asylum seekers who had been detained.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Residents generally enjoy freedom of movement and choice of residence, employment, and institution of higher education. Though the government periodically implemented lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021, such regulations were largely in line with public health guidance.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Property rights are legally protected and generally upheld in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are largely respected.
Domestic violence is a persistent problem. According to data published in December 2020 by Statistics Netherlands, nearly half of all young adult women have experienced some form of sexual violence.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Exploitative working and housing conditions for migrants, particularly in the agricultural and meat-processing sectors, persisted in 2021, despite government efforts to address the problem. In October, research released by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague showed that migrant workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, were living in degrading conditions, were not ensured proper compensation, and were housed illegally. Government policies created in December 2019 have been widely criticized as insufficient and have not properly regulated temporary employment agencies, which are often the cause of the problem.
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