CIVICUS speaks with Sieger Sloot, an actor and climate activist from a Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), and Marjolein Kuijers, policy officer on the right to protest at the Dutch section of Amnesty International, about the government’s reaction to climate protests in the run-up to parliamentary elections in the Netherlands in November.
XR is a global decentralised network of climate activists working to compel governments to address climate change and prevent biodiversity loss and ecological collapse through the use of non-violent civil disobedience tactics.
How have relationships between the Dutch government and climate activists changed in recent months?
Sieger Our government has not initiated any communication with us. While we have had limited interaction with the municipality of The Hague regarding our protests, our demands have never been addressed. In fact, it seems that authorities are responding to our actions with increasing force and more assertive rhetoric.
In August, seven out of the eight XR activists who had been arrested on charges of sedition were found guilty. Their convictions were based on the accusation that they had encouraged others to participate in a protest. The court in The Hague sentenced five of them to 30 hours of community service and the remaining two to 60 hours of community service.
On 9 September, around 25,000 people marched with us along the A12 highway in The Hague, calling for an end to government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. During the demonstration, police used water cannon to disperse protesters. The police detained a total of 2,400 people, including minors.
What happened in a recent dialogue with the authorities on the right to protest?
Marjolein: On 7 September there was a roundtable on the right to protest held by the Committee on Internal Affairs with the participation of civil society activists and experts. Some local authorities were also present: the mayors of The Hague and Utrecht, two major cities, Amsterdam’s chief public prosecutor and its police chief, and a former police officer with extensive experience in the field of assemblies. Topics included the importance and scope of the right to protest, measures required to safeguard this right and an examination of whether it is currently under attack. The need to revise the Public Assemblies Act was also discussed.
Protesters voiced concerns about feeling distrusted by the authorities and noted unwillingness to listen to their experiences and lack of transparency in the decision-making process regarding the right to peaceful assembly. Authorities responded by raising concern over protesters crossing the line with civil disobedience actions and stated that it would be desirable to develop additional regulations and further guidelines on the scope of the right to protest and whether protection under this right applies to certain actions, even though experts emphasised that the existing legislation is suitable and functional. Instead of adding provisions to existing legislation, Amnesty Netherlands and others have argued that some provisions, like the one enabling local authorities to ban a protest based solely on a lack of formal notification, should be eliminated as they permit undue restrictions. Interestingly, local authorities suggested that protesters should challenge restrictive decisions before a court, letting judges determine their legitimacy. However, this approach poses yet another barrier to the exercise of the human right to protest.
The government’s reasonings clearly illustrate why the right to protest is under attack in the Netherlands. It is a fundamental right that should be protected, respected and fulfilled. The authorities should take the peacefulness of protesters as a starting point and facilitate protests as much as possible. Restrictions should be the exception rather than the rule. Amnesty Netherlands, as well as others, has emphasised that the authorities should shift their perspective away from viewing assemblies and protesters as potential risks to be contained, and instead recognise them as concerned citizens expressing their opinions. The authorities should take the first steps to rebuild trust between them and protesters, starting by engaging in open dialogue more.
The fact that these issues were discussed among such a diverse group of participants, including protesters, local authorities and experts, holds significant importance. Hopefully, this dialogue will contribute to a better understanding of the scope and significance of the right to protest. This roundtable was the first step leading up to a parliamentary discussion that will take place later this year.
What are your next steps?
Sieger: We will continue to hold protests until the government of the Netherlands stops using public funds to subsidise the oil and gas industry. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, in collaboration with the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth and Oil Change International, revealed that every year the Dutch government provides around €37.5 billion (US$39.9 billion) in subsidies to industries reliant on fossil fuels. The report identifies 31 government subsidies, primarily in the form of tax breaks, that make it cheaper for companies to produce and consume fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal. The largest share of these subsidies, amounting to €6.7 billion (US$7.1 billion), is directed towards the Dutch shipping industry.
For the record, every time we block a road in The Hague, our crowd more than doubles in size the next time. I anticipate this trend to continue in the future as more and more people are joining our cause.
Is climate change a campaign issue in the run-up to parliamentary elections?
Sieger: Our call to cease all fossil fuel subsidies immediately has garnered support from several Dutch political parties, finding its place in their election campaigns. The European Union’s climate chief Frans Timmermans resigned from this position to lead the centre-left coalition of the Labour Party and the Green Left in the elections.
However, some right-wing parties don’t even mention the climate crisis in their programmes. So who wins matters. It will carry significant weight in determining the future course of our country.
How have farmers’ protests impacted on Dutch politics?
Sieger: Farmers have organised, protested and formed a political party to oppose the government’s plans to cut livestock numbers or close farms in return for money aimed at cutting nitrogen emissions as ordered by a 2019 Supreme Court ruling. The farmers’ protests have influenced the government’s negotiations with agricultural organisations, which however concluded without any tangible results, requiring the new government to start them all over again. Meanwhile, many farmers are starting to recognise the challenges of sustaining their struggle.
The outcome of the elections will play a pivotal role, but in any case it’s clear that emissions must be reduced, meaning a compromise has to be reached.
What international support do Dutch climate activists need?
Sieger: Coverage by international media outlets, as well as influential individuals mentioning our protests online help us a lot. We appreciate that civil society organisations are advocating to safeguard our right to protest, and we welcome any assistance from international organisations such as the United Nations.
Civic space in the Netherlands is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.