Farmers stage several protests at The Hague, proposed Dutch law threatens civic space

Peaceful Assembly

‘Burqa ban’ sparks protests

As reported previously on the Monitor, the Dutch Parliament voted on the so-called Partial Ban on Face Covering Clothing Act, which came into law on 1st August 2019. The Act prohibits any form of face covering clothing in a variety of public spaces, such as schools, hospitals and public buildings, among others. As the so called ‘burqa ban’ came into effect, hundreds of women protested at The Hague on 9th August 2019. They marched in silence, carrying signs like “I want to speak” or “I am robbed.

Farmers occupy The Hague

On 1st October 2019 during morning rush hour thousands of farmers from all over the Netherlands rode their tractors on the highway in the direction of The Hague, causing 1136 km of traffic. The farmers were protesting the negative image portrayed by politicians, the media and activists about their sector. The protest were sparked by the advice of the Remkes-committee, a government commission which was set up to look at the problem of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands. The committee recommended a reduction in livestock numbers in order to protect the environment from excessive nitrogen emissions. This advice followed a court ruling which found that Dutch emission levels are in breach of EU rules.

Once the farmers arrived at The Hague, they parked their vehicles on the Malieveld, a field close to the political heart of the city, to demand answers from politicians. Although the maximum number of tractors on the field was soon reached, the police chose not to prevent more protesters from accessing the field as the demonstration was progressing peacefully. While the demonstration was organised by a group profiling themselves as a grassroots movement, they received significant financial and logistical support from giants in the agricultural industry.

Two weeks later, on 16th October 2019, farmers once again rode their tractors on the highway to protest against several provincial governments. However, on this occasion the protest turned violent. In Groningen, protesting farmers forced their way into the provincial government building by ramming the door with a tractor. They also drove through fences and into police on horseback, which endangered the safety of police officers and passers-by. At The Hague they left the designated demonstration zone and drove their tractors through the inner-city shopping streets.

On 30th October 2019, The Netherlands’ political capital was once again occupied by heavy-duty vehicles, this time by construction workers, who are also affected by the regulations on nitrogen emissions. They parked their excavators on the Malieveld and dumped tonnes of sand on the field.

The field, which is an important venue, not only for protests but for cultural and recreational events, sustained severe damage during all three of the protests. The general public was also affected by the protests through traffic congestion experienced throughout the country and the numerous roadblocks that were set up around the surrounding areas of The Hague. Nevertheless, police and authorities for the most part remained on the sidelines and allowed the demonstrations to take place. A small number of protestors were arrested at each of the protests. Three farmers that were arrested for acts of violence in Groningen were released on the same day.

On 19th February 2020, thousands of angry farmers staged another protest at The Hague as politicians were set to debate the issue of nitrogen emissions the next day. This time the Dutch military blocked off roads to prevent farmers from gaining access to business and shopping districts. Some farmers were issued with tickets for driving their tractors on highways. A protester was arrested for failing to abide by police instructions and another was detained at the end of the protest.

Police remove climate protesters from airport

On 14th December 2019, Greenpeace staged a demonstration at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. The climate activists were calling on the airport to reduce its carbon emissions. Authorities had given the green light for the protest to take place outside the airport. However, the group decided to enter the airport and staged a sit in at the arrivals and departure section. One protester chained himself to a pillar during the demonstration. The police state that they issued multiple warnings for protesters to leave, but after they failed to do so they began forcefully removing them by dragging or carrying them if they resisted. 

Association and Expression

Proposed law endangers freedom of association and expression

NGOs are concerned about the proposal of a new law that intends to make it easier to ban anti-democratic, racial and extremist organisations which pose a threat to public order. Amnesty International warns that the law proposed by the Minister of Legal Protection could harm freedom of association and expression as it does not clearly define what is meant by ‘public order’ or what actions would constitute a threat against public order. The change in legislation is targeted at jihadist organisations, biker gangs and radical animal-rights activists. However, Amnesty International points out that in the past peaceful protests against Black Pete and windmills have also been connected to extremism by Dutch authorities. Along with several other NGOs, they fear that the new law will not only affect extremist organisations, but also have a negative effect on civic space in general. They also warn that vague definitions of ‘public order’ and ‘national security’ are often used by repressive regimes to block the work of government-critical organisations. The proposal is set to be discussed by the national parliament and senate sometime this year.

Expression

Allegations of political interference in hate speech case against far-right leader

The court of Utrecht is currently investigating allegations of possible political interference by the Ministry of Justice in the hate speech case against Geert Wilders, leader of the extreme right Nationalist Freedom Party (PVV). Wilders is being prosecuted for inciting hatred and discrimination against Moroccans in 2014. During an election speech after a political victory, he encouraged his supporters to chant that they wanted “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” Moroccans in the Netherlands. In December 2016 Wilders was found guilty of group insult and incitement to discrimination. But the court found that it did not warrant a conviction on hate speech and expressed that a conviction on the other two charges was enough punishment for Wilders and did not impose any sanctions. However, the prosecution wants Wilders to also pay a fine of €5000.

In June 2019, allegations emerged that the Minister of Justice at the time, Ivo Opstelten, had reached out to the Public Prosecution Department regarding the prosecution of Wilders. Both the public prosecutor and the Ministry of Justice initially denied that they had been in contact, however this was soon disproved by evidence found in e-mails, notes and interview reports between civil servants. The court has now ordered the current Minister, Ferd Grapperhaus to investigate the allegations and has allocated six weeks for the collection of all documents and correspondence related to the case. Minister Grapperhaus has also announced that he is launching his own investigation.