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Cooperation with civil society under changing conditions

12 March 2018 |  19:30 - 21:30

(Location has been changed) Human rights have since long been a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy. The Dutch government has over the past years aimed to cooperate with civil society actors to improve human rights conditions worldwide. It has not gone unnoticed, however, that civil society is facing growing pressure in many countries.Three case studies, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia will  be presented and discussed during a public seminar on the 12th of March 2018.

Civil society space and critical voices are being restricted. In this research project, LeidenAsiaCentre aims at investigating what the implications are of this development for the Dutch efforts to include civil society actors in its human rights policy.



The Dutch international human rights policy of cabinet Rutte II stressed the importance of cooperating with civil society actors, which includes many human rights defenders. These actors were regarded as ‘change agents’ of a transitional process towards respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. However, the space for civil society actors to operate in has shrunk in recent years. We conducted three country studies of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia in order to analyse what the implications are of this development for the inclusion of civil society actors within the Dutch human rights policy in authoritarian states.

We have found that the space for independent and critical civil society actors has decreased. This is especially driven by new legislation that has been implemented in each of the three countries. While civil society actors who supplement the state, for example by delivering social services, are allowed to operate, those who are engaged in politically sensitive issues are restricted. As a result, many civil society actors advocating human rights face increasing scrutiny from the state, can receive less funds from overseas and have been made more explicitly illegal. This has made it more difficult for these actors to fulfil their role as change agents for human rights and democracy.

Recent civil society developments in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia indicate that cabinet Rutte III should re-evaluate the role of civil society actors in the Dutch human rights policy in authoritarian states and make a choice. The government should either simply reduce its expectations of civil society actors in strengthening human rights and democracy, or, alternatively, help such actors to strengthen their position as leaders of broader social change. The latter choice requires a more country specific approach. Instead of selecting priority areas and applying methods that the Dutch public or political parties find important, it would be more suitable to respond to local needs, viewing civil society less as a means to realise specific human rights goals and more as an end in itself. The implications of cooperating with partners whose work has been made illegal under the new legislation should thereby be carefully considered.


12 March 2018
19:30 - 21:30


Wijnhaven Complex Room 3.60
Turfmarkt 99
Den Haag, Zuid-Holland 2511DP Nederland

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