Dutch gov't won't apologize for slavery because it would cause polarization: PM Rutte

The government will not apologize for the Netherlands' history of slavery, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a parliamentary debate on institutional racism on Wednesday. While he understands the calls for a apology, this is not the time, he said. "Apologies form a risk that society will further polarize" he said.

The Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, debated racism on July 1, Slavery Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. D66, GroenLinks, and ChristenUnie, among others, called on the government to apologize.

"I understand the requests and I know what apologies can mean," Rutte said. But the government carefully considered the matter and came to the conclusion that this is not the time. He called the considerations "a struggle", adding that the decision not to apologize had nothing to do with fears of financial claims or repatriations. But that the question of how far back in time apologies can reach was a consideration. The concern that an apology now would only increase polarization in society was also an important factor, he said.

GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver accused Rutte of being too passive. "The debate is already polarized, but racism is not a debate." He continued: “What always characterizes racism is that it is at the expense of someone else. Racism is also often the targeted person's problem: ‘You’re imagining things,’ ‘It was just a joke,’ ‘What's your problem?’, ‘I didn't mean it that way,’ ‘Just kidding.’ I have a feeling that our society is finally changing, under pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement; the protests. Thanks to them, these excuses are no longer accepted. Comparing a black-skinned spoken word artist to Zwarte Piet is just racism. Period.”

D66 leader Rob Jetten pointed out that the Dutch State's role in the slave trade left scars that the descendants of enslaved Black Dutch still carry with them. "They did not experience slavery themselves, but have grandparents who were born enslaved on plantations. A large group of Black Dutch people say: see and feel our pain," Jetten said. Possible polarization should not be the focus here, he said, the focus should be on "the pain of Black Dutch people."

"Expressions of regret, repentance and shame are appropriate. But that does not mean that we take historical responsibility for our history. That is only possible if we acknowledge the suffering of many people and apologize for our actions." Jetten referred to recent apologies the Dutch government made for Dutch violence in Indonesia's struggle for independence and for the role of the Dutch government in the persecution of Jewish people in the Second World War. "What is holding the Prime Minister back?" he wanted to know.

Jetten said that in discussing race in the Netherlands, he heard many accounts of men with a diverse background who got rejected for a job because their name is not "Mark", and young Black girls who were not allowed to participate in a school play because "there could not be Black princesses."

"It is 2020 and this is the harsh reality for many of our fellow countrymen. The fact that all those Black Lives Matter demonstrations are waking up more and more people is good, but it also deserves follow up in our systems, our institutions and in our policies," Jetten said. "To experience racism is to experience inequality and the generations of the future have the right to a world without racism. That will not happen after one debate or overnight. D66 therefore wants a coherent and long-term approach."

Rutte stressed that the decision not to apologize is the result of considerations of this current moment in time. "This debate is undoubtedly not finished," he said. Earlier on Wednesday Minister Kasja Ollongren of Home Affairs announced that an advisory office will investigate the history of slavery and its impact on society today. Rutte said that the government could reconsider its position based on the findings of this office.

Geert Wilders, leader of far-right populist party PVV, considered the debate unnecessary. “The world seems to have gone crazy after the death of George Floyd in the United States. After the coronavirus, a hysterical ‘discrimination virus’ seems to prevail over the globe,” he said. “Despite the presence of a tool called ‘Akwasi’, the Netherlands is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Only idiots make a distinction based on skin color, and most Dutch people therefore have no problem with the color of your skin, and that's a good thing. There are incidents, but last year only 123 discrimination incidents were ultimately submitted to the Public Prosecution Service.”

The VVD did not go quite that far. MP Zohair el-Yassini: “Let's first say that the Netherlands is a fantastic country. But it is also not perfect here. There are people in our society who are treated differently because of their skin color or origin in the search for work, a home or just on the street,” said VVD MP Zohair el-Yassini. “And I know this, because I have unfortunately gone through those experiences in my life. More than once. But for every person who discriminated against me, there have been ten people who have given me a chance.”