CIVICUS speaks with Sieger Sloot, an actor and climate activist from a Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), about climate protests and the criminalisation of climate activism in the Netherlands.
XR is a global decentralised network of climate activists working to compel governments to address climate change and prevent biodiversity loss and ecological collapse through the use of non-violent civil disobedience tactics.
What forms of protests has XR deployed in the Netherlands, and what have you achieved?
In the Netherlands, XR organised over 300 protests in 2022 alone. One of the most successful was a blockade of the A12 highway in The Hague city centre. We were 30 people when we started blocking the road last June, and since then, the number of participants doubled or tripled every time, so we grew exponentially. On 11 March 2023, around 4,000 protesters blocked the same spot.
It is XR’s strategy to use non-violent disruptive actions like blockades to draw attention to the climate crisis, and especially to the €30 billion (approx. US$32.9 billion) annual fossil fuel subsidies provided by the government. These attract way more media coverage than regular protests. The Dutch law allows a great deal of protesting and XR is actively investigating the limits of what is allowed.
These forms of protest have had a huge effect on Dutch society. For the first time we witness mainstream media talking about fossil fuel subsidies. Some 400 Dutch economists wrote an op-ed on why and how fossil fuel subsidies should be terminated. Members of parliament are making proposals for ending fossil fuel subsidies. The Dutch Secretary for Climate has announced a press conference on the climate crisis. A wave of famous musicians, actors, writers and directors are joining the XR movement. So our tactics are proving to be quite effective.
What are your demands to the Dutch government, and how has the government reacted?
The Dutch government promised to end fossil fuel subsidies in 2020 but still hasn’t done it, so with every blockade XR demands it end all fossil fuel subsidies immediately, or otherwise the protesters won’t leave. Until now, the government hasn’t complied with our demand. Instead, police have arrested protesters who weren’t willing to leave and fined others. They also used water cannon to disperse crowds and tried to infiltrate XR.
Over the past months, between 40 and 50 climate activists have been prosecuted in the Netherlands. The accusations vary from vandalism, which can be just about spray paint, to not following police orders and trespassing, all the way to sedition.
This included eight activists arrested for sedition because they posted on social media about their intention to go to the protest and block the highway. This had never happened before: it is a totally unprecedented attack on free speech and freedom of assembly. This provoked a lot of anger among Dutch people, since according to both Dutch and European Union law it’s allowed to block roads while protesting. Over 70 civil society organisations showed their solidarity with XR following the arrest of those eight activists by joining the A12 protest.
I think the Dutch government is criminalising climate activists just to ‘restore law and order’, but it has totally backfired on them. The District Attorney (DA) is prosecuting the eight activists, probably to make a case that not all ways of protesting are allowed – even though XR’s actions are always non-violent. We’ve had some quite violent farmers’ protests in recent years, but it seems that the DA didn’t dare to make a case against them. Of course they have tractors and aren’t as easy to target as climate activists.
What kind of support are your receiving from international allies?
We get a lot of international support online, which is absolutely awesome. Right now, I think we’re really thriving and growing rapidly. It feels as if XR is becoming more and more accepted and mainstream every day. Along with other activists I’ve started giving ‘Headed for Extinction’ talks to all kinds of people, which translated into more attention for our story from people in power and in the media. More and more people are now joining us because they see it’s the logical thing to do. A lot of powerful and smart people are beginning to realise that we need change, real and systemic change.
Civic space in the Netherlands is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with XR through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ExtinctionR on Twitter.