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Apologize for slavery, panel tells Dutch leaders

Farah Bahgat
July 1, 2021

On the annual day marking the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies, an advisory panel has urged the government to recognize slavery as a crime against humanity and to apologize for its role in it.

People queue to pay their respect at the National Slavery Monument in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam marked the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies on July 1, 1863Image: Peter Dejong/AP/picture alliance

An advisory panel in the Netherlands has called on the government on Thursday to apologize for the country's role in the 17th-19th century trans-Atlantic slave trade.

After the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a police officer in the United States, and the worldwide movement it sparked, Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that racism was an issue in the Netherlands

Rutte had refused to apologize for his country's role in slavery. Instead, his government set up a panel to start a dialogue about slavery's impact on modern Dutch society.

What did the panel recommend?

"History cannot be turned back," chairwoman Dagmar Oudshoorn said in a summary of the findings of the panel, whose recommendations are nonbinding. 

"However it is possible to state the intention that this historical injustice... whose ill consequences are still being felt today, be corrected as far as is possible, to make that the starting point of policy," Oudshoorn said.

Oudshoorn (R) presents the panel's findings to the Dutch deputy prime minister, Kajsa Ollongren (L).
Oudshoorn (R) presented the panel's findings to the Dutch deputy prime minister, Kajsa Ollongren (L) Image: Sem van der Wal/ANP/picture alliance

The panel laid out a set of recommendations toward recovery, including officially recognizing the slave trade under Dutch authorities as a crime against humanity and issuing a formal apology.

It also noted that the public lacked knowledge of the country's colonial past and recommended it be taught in schools.

"Make the slavery past visible so that it can become a shared history," the report said, advising creating a slavery museum.

The panel also recommended making July 1 a national holiday, attended by the king and the prime minister.

What is Keti Koti?

The panel's final report was published on Keti Koti, which means "Chains Broken," the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863.

Keti Koti is a national holiday in Suriname but not an official one in the Netherlands.

Apology from Amsterdam

The mayor of Amsterdam issued an apology on Thursday during a remembrance ceremony. 

Mayor Femke Halsema (L) with a woman at the national commemoration of the past of slavery.
Halsema (L) apologized for Amsterdam's former governors' roles in the global slave tradeImage: Koen van Weel/ANP/picture alliance

"The province of Holland was a major player in the trade in and exploitation of enslaved people. In the 18th century, 40% of the economic growth was based on slavery," said Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema. "And in Amsterdam, almost everyone made money from the colony of Suriname." 

Halsema noted that "not a single Amsterdammer alive today is to blame for the past," however, "we do take responsibility for it."

"We strive for a fair relationship with our history. Reconciliation around a shared past makes room for a shared future," Halsema said.

Halsema, a politician from the Dutch Green party, participated in last year's Black Lives Matter protests.

Why hasn't the Dutch government apologized for slavery? 

Last year, when Rutte acknowledged racism in the Netherlands, he said it was not his place to judge Dutch history. 

At the time, Rutte said an apology would further divide Dutch public opinion. 

Many people in the Netherlands associate colonial figures with their country's identity and the Dutch role in slavery receives little public attention. 

The Dutch West India Company, which shipped over half a million enslaved Africans to the Americas, was an important source of the Netherlands' early national wealth.