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Human Rights Quarterly 24.4 (2002) 992-1010

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Human Rights in the Foreign Policy of the Netherlands 1

Peter R. Baehr*
Monique C. Castermans-Holleman**
Fred Grünfeld***

I. Introduction

This article deals with the role of human rights in the foreign policy of the Netherlands during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Foreign observers have often mentioned the Netherlands as a model of a state that often, though not always, has put human rights considerations before other concerns of foreign policy. Or, in the often quoted words of the Norwegian human rights activist and deputy foreign minister Jan Egeland: "The Netherlands has probably become the most effective human rights advocate today." 2 We began this study, because we wondered whether that flattering image— [End Page 992] flattering that is in the eyes of human rights activists—is in accordance with the facts. And if it was once in accordance with the facts, whether that situation has remained the same or whether, as we suspected, it has changed over the years and if so, why. We thus intend to do two things: (1) try to compare policy positions set out in official documents with actual policy and (2) study aspects of Netherlands human rights foreign policy as it has developed over the years.

The government of the Netherlands has been very helpful to our endeavor, as it has expressed its ideas about human rights in foreign policy in a formal policy document. 3 That document was issued in 1979, but it still holds, according to the present foreign minister, the basic tenets of government policy in this field. 4 The common framework that we have adopted for this study, has been derived from the said policy paper.

For the purpose of this study, a number of cases of human rights policy has been selected: Dutch human rights policy in regard to Argentina, Chile, Central America, Turkey, the former Soviet Union, China, Indonesia, and South Africa. Prime criterion for selection of the cases was that violations of international human rights standards had occurred in the selected country or region and that these violations were widely discussed in the Netherlands. The time period covered ranges roughly from 1979 (when the government memorandum on human rights and foreign policy was published) to the 1990s. Depending on the nature of the case the exact period covered has somewhat varied. With the help of these case studies we try to present a picture that is representative of the Netherlands human rights policy.

The Netherlands reputation in the field of human rights is on the whole greater abroad than at home. This may be due to the fact that domestic nongovernmental human rights organizations are in a position to critically follow Dutch foreign policy, both in a multilateral and bilateral context, far [End Page 993] more closely than can be done from abroad. Members of parliament and the news media pay attention to what these human rights organizations have to say. NGOs tend to use the promotion and protection of human rights as their main, and sometimes only, standard of performance—a standard that no government, including that of the Netherlands, will be able to meet fully.

In this study, we have tried to focus both on the multilateral framework, which receives most attention internationally, and on the bilateral framework, which is how the Netherlands relates to foreign governments in its bilateral relations. The two do not necessarily always coincide. For instance, in meetings of the UN Commission on Human Rights it is human rights that have the central focus of attention of the Netherlands and other countries. In bilateral relations, human rights have always had to compete with other objectives of foreign policy such as the protection of national security and the promotion of economic relations. This may help to explain the good reputation of the Dutch in the field of human rights at the United Nations.

In its 1979 Memorandum, the Netherlands government put down some important principles for its human rights foreign...


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