Freedom in the World
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Public debate over freedom of speech and minority integration continued throughout 2008. In March, politician Geert Wilders released his anti-Koran short film Fitna on the internet. The cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot was detained in May on suspicion of violating laws against incitement and discrimination. In late October, the government decided to repeal a 1930s blasphemy law and incorporate religious matters into broader antidiscrimination legislation.
After the Dutch won their independence from Spain in the 16th century, the princely House of Orange assumed the leadership of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. A constitutional monarchy with a representative government emerged in the 19th century. The Netherlands remained neutral in both world wars but was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940. In the wake of the war, the country joined NATO in 1949. In 1952, it became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, a precursor to the European Union (EU).
Concerns about the integration of immigrants have gained prominence in Dutch politics in recent years. Following the murder of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002, his newly formed party, the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF), placed second in that month’s parliamentary elections, running on an anti-immigrant platform. However, party infighting led to the collapse of the new government in October. The center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) led the ensuing January 2003 elections with 44 seats, followed by the Labor Party (PvdA) with 42 seats and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with 28 seats. The LPF dropped to fifth place, taking just 8 seats. The CDA ultimately brought the VVD and the smaller Democrats-66 (D66) party into a center-right coalition. Jan Peter Balkenende of the CDA was reconfirmed as prime minister.
Nearly 62 percent of Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU constitution in a June 2005 national referendum, following a similar response by voters in France in May. The coalition government resigned in June 2006 over an internal dispute about the immigration and integration minister, Rita Verdonk. In May, she had moved to annul the citizenship of a fellow VVD member of parliament, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, after it was discovered that she had lied in her 1992 asylum application. Hirsi Ali had received death threats for being an outspoken critic of Islam and for the film Submission, which she had made in collaboration with controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was killed by a radical Islamist in 2004. D66 quit the government over the handling of the incident, causing the coalition to collapse.
In November 2006 elections, the CDA again led the voting with 41 seats, followed by the PvdA with 32, the Socialist Party with 26, and the VVD with 22. A new centrist coalition government took office in February 2007, consisting of the CDA, the PvdA, and the Christian Union party. The government included the country’s first Muslim cabinet ministers—Ahmed Aboutaleb, deputy minister for social affairs, and Nebahat Albayrak, deputy minister of justice. The new coalition also marked the morally conservative Christian Union’s debut in government.
Immigration and minority integration remained political flashpoints through 2008. Rita Verdonk’s new party, Proud of the Netherlands, gained popularity during the year even as the number of asylum applications increased significantly. Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom, released the anti-Koran short film Fitna on the internet in March after failing to find a public venue that would screen it. The government distanced itself from the film, and the riots it had been expected to provoke in Western Europe did not materialize. Separately, a cartoonist working under the pen name Gregorius Nekschot was arrested and held for 30 hours on suspicion of publishing work on his website that was derogatory toward Muslims. Police had begun investigating Nekschot in 2005, after an imam complained about his cartoons. Free speech proponents protested the arrest as political grandstanding designed to soothe religious hard-liners. At the urging of the PvdA, the other two parties in the coalition government, the CDA and the CU, agreed in late October to repeal the country’s 1930s blasphemy law and amend existing antidiscrimination legislation to cover religious groups.
The Netherlands is an electoral democracy. The 150-member lower house of parliament, or Second Chamber, is elected every four years by proportional representation. The 75-member upper house, or First Chamber, is elected for four-year terms by the country’s provincial councils. Foreigners resident in the country for five years or more are eligible to vote in local elections.
The leader of the majority party or coalition is usually appointed prime minister by the monarch, currently Queen Beatrix. Mayors are appointed from a list of candidates submitted by the municipal councils. The monarch appoints the Council of Ministers (cabinet) and the governor of each province on the recommendation of the majority in parliament.
The country has few problems with political corruption. The Netherlands was ranked 7 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The news media are free and independent. The rarely used 1881 lese majesty law restricting defamation of the monarch was invoked twice in 2007: a man was arrested and fined 400 euros for calling the queen a whore, and a young journalist wearing a shirt with the same phrase was arrested but not prosecuted. A draft law presented in November 2008 would protect journalists, bloggers, and opinion makers from having to reveal confidential sources in court proceedings. Despite a high concentration of newspaper ownership, a wide variety of opinion is expressed in the print media. Internet access is not restricted.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and religious organizations that provide educational facilities can receive subsidies from the government. Members of the country’s Muslim population have encountered an increase in hostility in recent years, including vandalism, arson, defacement of mosques or other Islamic institutions, harassment, and verbal abuse.
In order to curb undesired foreign influence in the affairs of Dutch Muslim groups, the government requires all imams and other spiritual leaders recruited from Muslim countries to take a one-year integration course before practicing in the Netherlands. An all-party parliamentary report issued in 2004 had suggested a reversal of the country’s 30-year-old policy of multiculturalism, arguing that Muslims resident in the Netherlands should “become Dutch.” The government does not restrict academic freedom.
People have the right to assemble, demonstrate, and generally express their opinions. National and international human rights organizations operate freely without government intervention. In 2006, the parliament enacted legislation banning organizations that are considered to be terrorist groups by the EU and the United Nations. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Two of the largest trade unions opened their ranks to self-employed workers in 2007.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. The police are under civilian control, and prison conditions meet international standards.
The population is generally treated equally under the law, although human rights groups have criticized the country’s recent asylum policies for being unduly harsh and violating international standards. In September 2006, amid growing criticism by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and refugee groups for its failure to expedite the asylum requests of 32,000 people, the government finally granted residency permits to about half and ordered the rest to leave the country. In December of that year, the authorities instituted a general moratorium on expulsions of the asylum seekers. Separately, the government in October 2006 halted repatriations of failed Iranian asylum seekers who were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, as they could face persecution at home.
The country is a destination and transit point for trafficking in persons, particularly women and girls for sexual exploitation. A law that took effect in 2005 expanded the legal definition of trafficking to include forced labor and increased the maximum penalty for traffickers to 12 years in cases of serious physical injury and 15 years in cases of death. The government has also supported NGOs that assist trafficking victims. In 2007, the city of Amsterdam brought in national police investigators to continue the crackdown on organized crime in districts linked to trafficking and the prostitution industry. In September of that year, a public-housing corporation bought several buildings in the city as part of a redevelopment plan that would eventually close around a third of the street-level windows used by legal prostitutes.