This article was published in inRoads, Women’s Aid Organisation’s quarterly newsletter.
At the end of March this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the government of the Netherlands to participate in the Dutch Visitors Programme. Along with seven young women and men from other countries, I spent ten remarkable days in the Netherlands learning about international law and peace, human rights, and Dutch society, history, and culture.
As a soft diplomacy initiative, the programme was undoubtedly a success. An evaluation exercise asked participants to rate their emotional attachment to the Netherlands on a scale of 1 to 10, before and after the programme, where a higher number corresponds to higher emotional attachment. The average rating shifted from around 3 to around 7.
One reason for this positive shift, for me at least, was learning about the emphasis the Dutch government places on human rights. Things are not perfect of course – challenges in issues like human trafficking and migration remain, and women are still fighting to break the glass ceiling. But the Netherlands consistently receives favourable ratings in human rights indicators like Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report.
This emphasis on human rights can be seen in the way the Dutch government views civil society: as complementary. This is an attitude we should move towards in Malaysia, where civil society is often treated with disregard or hostility. Government consultations with NGOs on human rights issues are haphazardly organised and lack meaning. State funding for civil society is restricted, and comes with strings attached. Vocal civil society leaders are harassed and threatened, with impunity. To be sure, adversarial stances are sometimes necessary. But the government could do better at treating criticism as constructive rather than a challenge to authority.
An example of this complementary relationship is the way the Dutch government consults civil society. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs meets with civil society and other government bodies roughly every two months. The government also holds separate consultations with civil society around other events. Consultations were held before and after the recent 57th session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW), twice before the government reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, as well as twice leading up to Netherlands’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session. The civil society groups I spoke with were satisfied with the level of engagement they had with the government, though one complaint was that the government often referred to programmes as evidence of action and not the actual impact of policies.
Another example of this complementary relationship is the resources the government puts into human rights. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a Multilateral Organisation and Human Rights Department, with around 15 staff dedicated to human rights. The government also financially supports NGOs working on human rights issues. An LGBT rights advocacy organisation I visited had more than half of its budget funded by the government. An NGO that coordinates registration, counselling, and shelter services for trafficked persons I visited receives all its funds from the government to conduct those specific services. In addition to a National Human Rights Institute, the Netherlands also has a statutory body dedicated to reporting on human trafficking and sexual violence against children.
Malaysia is of course very different from the Netherlands. I was reminded of this when visiting a prison in the Netherlands. All eight participants in the Dutch Visitors Programme, all from developing countries, commented on how the prison was in better condition than many schools in our countries. Nonetheless, we must not use this as an excuse to dismiss the possibility of moving forward, sometimes by learning from others.