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Will the Netherlands have to accept top-down rules from Europe in the area of migration, for example? According to researcher Wiebe Hommes, that is not the whole story. "In this debate it matters which way you look at history."

On Wednesday 19 April, Wiebe Hommes will defend his PhD dissertation on 'Co-creating European human rights: How the Netherlands received and shaped the European Convention on Human Rights, 1945-2022'. 

In his dissertation, Hommes explains how the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has changed over the years and why our current view of it is incorrect. The treaty is now of great importance: European human rights are intertwined with 'an enormous part of Dutch law', he explains. “It is also about, for example, the right to family life, the right to property and the rights of suspects during an interrogation.”

Below follows a short interview with Wiebe about his research.

Why did you delve into the history of the ECHR?

The treaty dates from 1950, but not much has happened to it for years. In the 1960s, if you went to court with an appeal to the treaty because you believed your human rights were being violated, you were laughed at. Now that is very different. I wanted to know how it came to life. The traditional view is that this is due to the European Court of Human Rights. From there, the case law would be imposed on the member states.

But is that not true?

Not quite. I turn it around: the human rights from the ECHR are also enforced from below. Proponents and opponents of the treaty think it has all been top-down. I want to nuance and supplement that image.

How can human rights be enforced 'from below'?

There was writing, campaigning and research. This grassroots movement consisted of academics and activists, but also, for example, politicians and diplomats. Their actions shaped the meaning of the ECHR, not only in the Netherlands, but also in Europe. People often wore more than one hat: the academic who wrote about the treaty also guided a case to the European Court, or advised the government on initiatives that would improve the functioning of the treaty. Ideas about human rights did not only come from Europe.

Why is it important to emphasize that the treaty was not just imposed from above?

You hear a lot of criticism in politics these days about the status of the treaty, especially from the right. The treaty would have gone too far and the influence of the European Court on national policy would be too great. But in this debate it matters which way you look at history. I can show that it has not only been a top-down story in which the state was overtaken by an active Court, but that governments themselves have also had continuous influence on the treaty. The status and development of the treaty should not be a surprise to governments as they were fully involved in the changes.

Has there been a certain tipping point in history as a result of which member states have become more critical of the treaty?

There has not been a particular point, but you can clearly see the resistance increasing as the treaty begins to deals with migration. Since 2010, criticism in the Netherlands has also become more pronounced; a little later than in other European countries.

Why was the Netherlands relatively late?

I think because over the years the Netherlands has created a self-image in which human rights are a prominent part. It is part of our 'national values'. The idea is: 'we' support gender equality, we legalize gay marriage and that makes us think we are better than others in a way. In that sense, we view human rights as being mainly violated by other countries, or are simply not yet understood very well by people from foreign countries. But if the treaty also deals with migration, it suddenly becomes a lot more relevant for a very sensitive part of Dutch policy. The framing of that political freedom of policy is a sensitive point.

What political lessons can you draw from the treaty's history?

It is too easy to say that the treaty is only imposed on us from above. It's a mix. We have also created the treaty together in the past. What it means and how it is used is something that we also have a say in. I think that is a very hopeful message.

Mr. dr. W.E. (Wiebe) Hommes

Faculty of Law

European Public Law