Dutch PM Mark Rutte apologises for country's historical role in the slave trade

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By Euronews  with AP
PM Mark Rutte at the National Archives in The Hague. Monday, 19 December 2022.
PM Mark Rutte at the National Archives in The Hague. Monday, 19 December 2022.   -   Copyright  Peter Dejong/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised on Monday on behalf of his government for the Netherlands’ historical role in slavery and the slave trade.

"Today I apologise," Rutte said in a 20-minute speech that was met with silence by an invited audience at the National Archive in The Hague.

Some campaigners, however, had urged the Dutch PM to delay his speech until next year, for the 160th anniversary of the country's abolition of slavery on 1 July.

Ahead of the speech, Waldo Koendjbiharie, a Suriname-born retiree who has lived for years in the Netherlands, said an apology was not enough.

“It’s about money. Apologies are words and with those words you can’t buy anything," he said.

Rutte told reporters after the speech that the government is not offering compensation to "people — grandchildren or great grandchildren of enslaved people."

Instead, it is establishing a €200 million fund for initiatives to help address slavery’s legacy in the Netherlands and its former colonies and to promote education about the issue.

During the speech, Rutte apologised "for the actions of the Dutch state in the past: posthumously to all enslaved people worldwide who have suffered from those actions, to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants into the here and now."

Describing how more than 600,000 African men, women and children were shipped, mostly to the former colony of Suriname, by Dutch slave traders, the PM said that history often is "ugly, painful, and even downright shameful."

He also acknowledged the efforts to postpone his speech to next July, which included a court injunction filed by six Surinamese foundations.

"We know there is no one good moment for everybody, no right words for everybody, no right place for everybody," he said. 

During the 17th century, the Netherlands was one of the world's wealthiest countries, with its economic growth relying heavily on the slave trade.

The Dutch prime minister’s address was a response to a report published last year by a government-appointed advisory board, which recommended a government apology and recognition of the "crimes against humanity" committed during the slave trade.

Rutte's speech comes at a time when many nations' colonial histories have been receiving heightened scrutiny, especially as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement's growth following the police killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in 2020.

In 2018, Denmark apologised to Ghana, which it colonised from the mid-17th to mid-19th century, while in June this year, King Philippe of Belgium expressed "deepest regrets" for abuses in Congo.

The Netherlands now joins these countries' ranks.

"We who live in today’s world must acknowledge the evils of slavery in the clearest possible terms, and condemn it as a crime against humanity," Rutte said.