Towards a justice-centred new Dutch policy on foreign trade and development cooperation

Key reflections from Impunity Watch


On 24 June, the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Liesje Schreinemacher presented a new policy for foreign trade and development cooperation. The policy will be discussed by the Parliamentary Committee and the Parliament. We urge the Minister, Committee and Parliament to uphold the Netherlands’ strong record of defending human rights and promoting a global order based on justice and the rule of law.

In particular, we strongly encourage the government to continue its longstanding policy of supporting civil society, to promote sustainable development, improve access to justice and create more inclusive and democratic societies.

Our experience fighting impunity shows that a people-centred approach is essential to reaching those in need. This means understanding people’s experiences and needs, especially in relation to deep structures of inequality that perpetuate injustice.

The Netherlands has played an important role in fostering dialogue between different parties, allowing those at the grassroots to voice their demands to national and international policymakers.


Continuing to promote the participation of grassroots communities and groups of victims of violence and conflict at the EU or UN level would boost the impact of Dutch development cooperation, allowing communities to be actors in the change they envision. People-centred and sustainable development in turn provides a basis for trade that does not harm the principles of rights and equality.

One area that needs to be strengthened in the new policy is the fight against impunity. Impunity for serious human rights violations is on the rise around the world. Likewise, we see a deterioration in the rule of law in a growing number of authoritarian regimes, where entire systems prevent accountability, and constrict independent civil society and justice. This undermines international trade and development at the same time.

International trade policies should not turn a blind eye to considerations of human rights and accountability, and instead be based on a thorough analysis of structural causes of inequality and impunity. We cannot continue business as usual with regimes that systematically violate human rights and promote impunity.

In addition, promoting rule of law, democracy and development abroad also requires constant self-reflection on one’s own role in today’s globalised and interdependent world. The Netherlands as a trading nation with a history of colonialism has a specific responsibility here. To consider trade and development only from a perspective of national or regional economic and security interests will not establish the trust and credibility that is needed to be recognised as a global leader in promoting human rights, justice and accountability.

Based on these overarching reflections, we would like to recommend four key areas that we believe should be reflected in the new policy, if the Netherlands has the ambition to make a real difference on the ground.

1. Overcoming systemic impunity


Impunity is a key obstacle for human rights, development and free trade. It paves the way for organised crime and the global drug trade, as we have seen in the case of Central America. Impunity thus undermines long-term stability.


Overcoming impunity should be the cornerstone of any trade and development policy to be effective. However, this has not been adequately reflected in previous development policies. Beyond speaking out about impunity, the Dutch policy should include more concrete measures to help overcome it, ranging from sanctions for violations, aid conditionality based on respect for human rights, coordinated multilateral actions, and using bilateral diplomatic pressure to change behaviour.


These approaches need to be adapted to different contexts and require coordinated efforts. Together with EU and other international partners, the Netherlands can combat impunity more effectively.

The limited focus on priority countries in the previous development policy, including on countries that are perceived as the origin of migration or that are close to home, has been an obstacle for promoting a world without impunity and prevented the policy from having a global reach and impact. The new policy needs to be broader. It must be clearer in its guidance about the possible measures in non-priority countries, to preserve and build on gains already made.

The Netherlands has successfully implemented or supported development and human rights policies in the past. Some of these successes were undermined when policies were abandoned, simply because they were not in priority countries.


Guatemala provides a case in point. The successful anti-corruption policy here led to the internationally acclaimed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Unfortunately, the early abandonment of this policy facilitated the systematic dismantling of the rule of law, and with it the CICIG, that we currently see. This means that years of Dutch investment in the rule of law and overcoming impunity in Guatemala was lost. The crumbling rule of law creates an adverse context for Dutch business interests.

The Guatemalan case also shows where opportunities for better alignment of international policies lie. The Netherlands and the EU should be more outspoken in condemning impunity, especially when there is space for coordination with key international allies, in the case of Guatemala with the US, which has recently applied sanctions against individuals involved in corruption and human rights violations.

The new policy also provides an opportunity to be bolder in supporting human rights defenders. Those who are combating impunity, in some cases supported by Dutch policy, take huge risks as they touch upon established power structures. The new foreign trade and development cooperation policy should increase the support for the fight of these brave defenders of rights and the rule of law – not just in the short term. With The Hague as the global capital for peace and justice, the Netherlands has a reputation to defend, to protect those who struggle for accountability.

2. Integrating grassroots voices in policymaking and monitoring

The majority of development and trade policies tend to be top-down and untransparent, both in terms of their design and implementation. Grassroots communities and those that are most affected by these policies are rarely involved. As a result, policies are far removed from the needs of victims and survivors of serious human rights violations. If the Ministry wants to promote a people-centred approach that can make a difference for the most marginalised, it is essential to integrate these grassroots voices.


Overcoming impunity is one of the key demands from grassroots communities, so people-centred trade and development need to support their demand.

Ensuring that the new foreign trade and development cooperation policy makes a difference in combating impunity and improving the lives of grassroots communities requires monitoring mechanisms that look at impact rather than outputs. Impact should be defined here not just in quantitative terms (e.g. the number of participants in workshops or the amount of policy papers and tools developed), but in terms of qualitatively improving living conditions and tackling structures of impunity and inequality.


This also means analysing how different policies overlap and can reinforce each other to contribute to overcoming impunity. Grassroots communities should have a central place in monitoring processes. Their assessment and evaluation should be the key indicator for progress. Integrating their voices requires strengthening their agency, which leads us to reflections on gender and agency.


3. Supporting gender equality instead of undermining it

Trade and development have a great transformative potential from the perspective of gender and unequal power relations, for example by improving women’s economic independence, agency and autonomy. The new foreign trade and development cooperation policy needs to tap into this potential for gendered transformation. Although there are many opportunities for this, we would also like to point to a challenging trend: militarisation.


The growing worldwide pattern of militarisation is concerning, in particular from a gender perspective. Militarisation often leads to increased gendered violence, as a result of the promotion of militarised masculinities which use violence and control to keep unequal power structures intact and maintain impunity. This leaves systems in place that counter human development and fair trade.

The new foreign trade and development cooperation policy should be more critical about the connections between arms trade and development, human rights and justice. It should clearly identify the red lines, especially where trade could undermine gender equality and create or maintain a system where gender inequality becomes engrained in society. For example, the use of private security firms by international mining companies has led to sexual violence against indigenous women in Guatemala, whereas the global arms trade and the circulation and availability of arms maintains militarised masculinities which rely on gendered and armed violence as a naturalised response to conflicts.

Official processes that authorise arms sales should integrate a gender impact assessment that includes the analysis of militarised masculinity. The Ministry, in coordination with other relevant ministries and international allies, should therefore institutionalise a process of continuous monitoring of the effects of militarisation on trade, development and human rights. The red line here is that Dutch policies should never contribute to increased militarisation, gendered violence and the persistence of patriarchal structures which uphold impunity and injustice. The new policy on foreign trade and development cooperation should be no exception.

4. Providing psycho-social support to promote the agency of human rights defenders

Our work has showed that promoting agency of communities is crucial for justice and development, as it builds on their existing strengths and transformative potential, rather than emphasising their victimhood. Overcoming individual and collective trauma is a precondition for people in developing and conflict contexts to become active agents in their own lives and in struggles for justice and development. Mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) is also essential to establish trust within and between communities. From this perspective, MHPSS should be a standard practice in any Dutch development intervention and a core element in the new policy.

Such an approach should be based on ‘Do no harm’ principles and address traumas rooted in the past and present. Individual trauma response should be combined with strategies to address and transform broader social and community dynamics that feed trauma by marginalising groups of people based on their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or political identity. Systemic impunity perpetuates such patterns of exclusion and injustice.

The policy should also identify potential ways in which Dutch development interventions can unintentionally contribute to re-traumatisation or further traumatisation, and prevent these risks based on a strong MHPSS awareness. In relation to this, it is important to consider that the Western, often individualistic approach to understanding and dealing with trauma is not appropriate in all contexts, and can in fact be counter-productive. MHPSS should be delivered in ways that correspond to culturally appropriate understandings of trauma and emotional well-being.


The new policy should therefore support grassroots MHPSS interventions in a more systemic and coherent fashion.