Sunday 02 April 2023

No apology for slavery, says Dutch PM in bad-tempered debate about racism

The monument to slavery in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch government has no plans at the moment to offer an apology for slavery and the Dutch role in the slave trade, prime minister Mark Rutte said during an often heated debate on racism and discrimination on Wednesday evening.

Two of the four coalition parties – D66 and ChristenUnie – had called on the government to take a stand but, Rutte said, a formal apology could end up increasing polarisation.

‘I understand the request and I know what an apology can mean,’ Rutte told MPs. ‘But the question is, can you hold the people who are alive today responsible for the past. Some could experience that as painful.’

D66 leader Rob Jetten reminded Rutte that the descendants of black Dutch people have grandparents who were born on plantations. The risk of polarisation should not be central but the ‘pain felt by black Dutch people,’ he said.

Rutte told MPs that the government’s position is that of this moment. ‘The debate is certainly not over,’ he told MPs. The cabinet has set up a special committee to look into the slavery and its impact on the presence and an apology will certainly come on board, the prime minister said.

More importantly, there is no parliamentary majority for an apology, broadcaster NOS pointed out.

Angry debate

The debate, called for by D66, Labour and GroenLinks, came just weeks after the prime minister, and the VVD’s parliamentary party leader Klaas Dijkhoff, admitted that there is a problem with racism in the Netherlands.

The parties wanted to discuss getting tough on staffing agencies which are willing to discriminate, ban ethnic profiling as practiced by the police and tax office, as well as discuss an apology for the Dutch role in the slave trade.

However, said the Volkskrant in its report on the discussion, the idea might have been noble, but in practice the debate was more of a slanging match between neighbours.

The Netherlands is slowly facing up to its slavery past

The first contribution, by Labour leader Lodewijk Asscher, degenerated into a row about ‘whataboutism, picking at old wounds and preaching to the converted’, the Volkskrant said.

GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver called Geert Wilders an idiot and Wilders called Klaver a ‘political hooligan’ with party members who voted for communist mass murderers.

Kees van der Staaij, leader of the fundamentalist Protestant SGP went as far as to say that ‘unborn lives matter’ while Esther Ouwehand, of the pro-animal PvdD, compared turning a blind eye to racism with conditions in factory farms.


Despite the rancour, Rutte did agree to look into the option of having 2023 declared the year to remember slavery. It will then be 150 years since slavery was finally abolished in the Dutch colonies.

GroenLinks and D66 came up with the proposal, and, said Rutte ‘it is a good idea’.

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