#DemocracyDrinks June Edition: Protecting Civic Space “Freedom should be the rule, with limits being the exception”

#DemocracyDrinks is a global event series where democracy advocates and defenders meet monthly to exchange ideas and hear from experts. Over 50 cities worldwide host editions, with The Hague edition organised by NHC, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), and The Hague Humanity Hub.

The June 2023 edition was hosted by NHC at the Grand Café de Utopie, and was centred around ‘Protecting Civil Space’, with the conversation moderated by Kirsten Meijer (NHC Executive Director), and featuring Marjolein Kuijers (Policy Officer Right to Protest, Amnesty Netherlands), and Aïcha Chaghouani (Relations and Advocacy Officer, NHC).

The current state of civic space in the Netherlands and Europe

The conversation began with panellists assessing current trends within maintaining ‘Civic Space’: open and public spaces where people can freely express their opinion through gatherings, assemblies, or indeed protests. Marjolein Kuijers began by setting out trends within a Dutch context: protests and gatherings in the Netherlands have to be registered with the local municipality, and the Mayor of the municipality can then impose certain limits on the gathering or process. What this can mean in practice, though, is that protests and protestors are not treated the same in different municipalities. Kuijers also highlighted that there is a lack of knowledge around the right to protest; an Amnesty Netherlands survey found that whilst 72% of Dutch people are in favour of the right to protest, over 50% think that a Mayor can impose restrictions on a protest if there is ‘any chance of trouble’.

The panel also looked at how protests are treated around the Netherlands, with Kuijers contrasting the treatment of climate protestors in The Hague (the police began physically removing protestors very soon after they assembled) with protestors around Asylum Policy in Ter Apel (where there was some intimidation from local residents, though no police involvement). Panellists agreed that the Dutch police should take the role as protectors of the right to protest as seriously as their responsibility to make sure that people aren’t inconvenienced.

Aïcha Chaghouani (NHC) noted that a squeezed civic space is a trend across Europe, with particular threats to the right to protest from governmental and pressure groups using legal mechanisms to try and stymie protests and public actions. Another trend that Aïcha identified is advocacy groups (especially those working to improve LGBTQIA+ rights) seeing their funding being affected due to their ‘noisy’ reputations.

Stepping up protections

Marjolein Kuijers (Amnesty NL) noted that the group is working to provide strategic support in and around the right to protest in the Netherlands. By reaching out and engaging with local authorities, Amnesty are trying to get universal knowledge and acceptance of the various regulations that govern protest in the Netherlands.

Chaghouani then added that NHC is working at the European level to advocate for better protections for civic spaces across the continent: with some success including all three EU instruments making statements to back protecting the right to protest in the EU.

Thanks to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee for hosting the June edition of #DemocracyDrinks. The next event will be held in September, stay tuned for updates!