Hard Amnesty report: ‘Police go way too far in tackling demonstrators’
Prof Dr. Robert Gorter
The police remove blocking activists of Extinction Rebellion from the A12 in The Hague for the seventh time. © ANP
In recent years, the police have gone completely overboard in tackling ‘peaceful demonstrators across the European Union (EU). This is stated by Amnesty International on the basis of a two-year investigation and interviews with approximately fifty-five demonstrators in The Netherlands. With ‘unannounced home visits’ and ‘unlawful ID checks’, agents often went beyond their limits, says the human rights organization. “We want this to stop.”
Amnesty International has, among other things, requested documents from municipalities and the police about surveillance during demonstrations. This would show that the police are violating the rights of demonstrators, such as the right to privacy and the right to protest. Especially since the corona crisis, agents are eagerly looking for all kinds of personal data of demonstrators, such as their address, citizen service number, and date of birth. Data would also be requested from parents and children of activists. That is cause for concern, says the human rights organization.
Controlling demonstrators does not just fall out of the blue. The police have been concerned for some time about the ‘increasing social discontent’ and see that ‘aggression and violence remain at too high a level’. For example, in The Netherlands in 2020, the first corona year, the number of incidents in which officers reacted with violence towards demonstrators rose from 10,624 to 12,543. Last year (2022), the number of violent incidents remained as high as 12,895.
Group app infiltration
In particular, violence during ‘unplanned arrests’ increased. According to the police, this is partly due to the number of demonstrations. The police expect that officers will be confronted with aggression and violence more often and seem to want to reduce the risk of more incidents through preventive investigation. According to Amnesty, the powers used by the police are ‘formulated too vaguely and violate the right to privacy’.
This mainly concerns illegal ID checks, social media monitoring, drones at demonstrations, infiltration of group apps, and unannounced home visits. Supervision and control of this are lacking. Each ID check would also be registered in police databases for at least five years. This is contrary to the right to privacy and the right to demonstrate, says spokesman Elke Kuijper. “The police are doing everything they can to find out who is demonstrating. Amnesty wants this unauthorized surveillance of peaceful demonstrators to stop and only be used if there is a suspicion of a serious crime.”
Dozens of activists whom Amnesty spoke to experience police actions at demonstrations as intimidating. They feel hindered in exercising their fundamental rights. “At one point there were seven or nine officers around us, while there were only four of us,” says Robert, who recently attended an anti-racism demonstration. “We were told that we were doing something that was not allowed, so they wanted to see our ID. They claim their position of power. They searched anyone who did not want to show their ID.”
At last week’s demonstrations, the police quickly deployed a water cannon (video):
Climate activists ‘enjoy’ water cannon on A12 The Hague
Another activist states that she has started a procedure to view her data. “In what I was allowed to see, I especially noticed the tone in which I was spoken about. The BOA had said, among other things: ‘they also discriminate against us whites’.”
‘The law does not suffice’
Since January 1, 2005, everyone over the age of 14 must be able to show valid proof of identification if requested by the police, based on the Compulsory Identification Act (WUI). The WUI was intended to increase safety and reduce nuisance. When it was introduced, it was emphasized that the police could not just ask for identification. This concerns threats of violence at demonstrations where riots may arise. “But the police practices investigated in this report go directly against what is seen as desirable or permissible in the law,” says Kuijper.
High risk of arbitrariness, discrimination, and abuse of power. We want illegal identity checks to stop
Dagmar Oudshoorn, director of Amnesty International Netherlands
The law is therefore not sufficient, says Dagmar Oudshoorn, director of Amnesty International Netherlands. “The police in the Netherlands have too broad powers to determine for themselves who they stop and check during demonstrations. This creates a high risk of arbitrariness, discrimination, and abuse of power. We want the illegal identity checks to stop.”
Without certain personal information, the police cannot estimate the risks associated with a demonstration and how much police capacity they must deploy to steer the demonstration in the right direction, a spokesperson said. The police take signals about ‘incorrect proportionality considerations’ ‘seriously’. “It is by no means the intention of the police to intimidate people who use their right to demonstrate. If people do feel intimidated, this is an undesirable effect of our actions.”
Since 2016, Amnesty International has been looking at how demonstrators are treated in the Netherlands. This happens, for example, during the actions of Extinction Rebellion. More than 1,500 demonstrators were brutally arrested in last Saturday’s action. Most people are not yet prosecuted.