Tag Archives the hague

Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Furthering the discussion on the negative consequences for sex workers[1] of the regulatory conflation of sex work and human trafficking, this post reflects on how regulation focused on identifying cases of human trafficking in the Dutch sex industry has failed to protect sex workers, whose primary concerns remain an unsafe working environment and a lack of job security. Government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions – what is needed is increased dialogue for evidence-based policy-making that ensures that immediate needs of sex workers are met without further ado.

Photo: Gio Mikava (Unsplash)

“I don’t want security – I want that window to be changed. It’s unsanitary, it’s dirty,” says Vanessa[2], a transgender sex worker from Ecuador who has been working in the sex industry for 30 years, when I ask her what would make her feel safer at work. After reflecting a bit about what safety means and how we understand it, we start to talk about working conditions. What ‘good conditions’ means in the practice of sex work does not seem to be a priority for the authorities in charge of supervising this industry in the Netherlands, Vanessa and other sex workers tell me. Their objective is mainly to identify cases of human trafficking and illegal forms of sex work.

According to the sex workers I interviewed and observations in both window-based sectors in The Hague that I carried out for my master’s thesis, the working conditions vary from place to place. One afternoon, in the internal windows of one of the Doubletstraat passages, I could feel the dense, heavy, and hot air that many sex workers live with during the summer, as well as the dust that accumulates. Martha, who has been in the industry for 10 years, says: “Of course, there is no air here, here you are like a fish out of water”. For others, bad working conditions are also related to:

  • The lack of access to a clean bathroom with a shower;
  • The lack of access to clean changes of bedding;
  • The lack of a clean and sanitary work environment;
  • The lack of separate spaces for eating and resting;
  • High rental amounts;
  • The precarity of the business;
  • The possibility of being left without a workplace, as the number of licenses issued for sex work are still decreasing; and
  • The (im)possibility of working from home in cities where home-based sex work is illegal.

From bad to worse…

Sex workers’ insecurities were exacerbated by COVID-19-related government measures, which due to the extended lockdown and limitation of face-to-face contact left a big group of sex workers, especially immigrants, without work for longer periods than any other worker, and without financial help. Yet resisting the difficult working conditions is not straightforward. The fear of the consequences of their airing grievances is preventing sex workers from doing so. Vanessa tells me: “I have talked to the others about it, but they tell me not to mess with it because I am going to have problems”. Like her, several sex workers tell me that they would not be taken seriously if they complained about their working conditions, or that they could be retaliated against by the operators, who would no longer rent the site to a ‘troublemaker’. A member of the support organisation Spot 46 says that sex workers can go to the municipality to complain, but nobody really hears them.[3] Thus, the path to changing their precarious working conditions is unclear to window-based sex workers in The Hague.

Focused on legality, not on working conditions

“If you have your papers in order, there is no problem” – Martha (name changed)

Matters of legality seem to take precedence over the wellbeing of sex workers. When I talked to the sex workers I interviewed for my study, inevitably, the discussion turned to the controls and supervision of this industry that are carried out by municipalities. In The Hague, a team called HEIT (The Hague Economic Intervention Team), made up of members of the police and the municipality, oversees the sex industry. Interestingly, this team only focuses on identifying cases of human trafficking and eradicating criminality (City Council 2019:10). When I asked about their perception of government supervision, the first response of all sex workers was that the government was worried about ensuring their legality through document control: by checking their immigration status, work permit, and registration at the Chamber of Commerce. In addition, municipal health service GGD also monitors the industry, but its focus is on public health and therefore is directed at the sexual practices of sex workers, who are considered a risk group (City Council 2019: 10).

Overregulated, but unprotected

From sex workers’ experiences with the controls and from what is stipulated in public policy, it can be argued that government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions. Although there are specific and very strict regulations for sex workers, and although multiple institutions are involved in their enforcement, sex workers’ own concerns, and hence their protection as workers, are not a priority. Experiences on the ground reveal that what sex workers need is not more repressive surveillance that frames them as powerless victims of trafficking, but regulation that takes their demands for decent working conditions seriously.


[1] See: Heumann et al. (2017); Heumann et al. (2016); Hubbard et al. (2008); Outshoorn (2012); Pitcher and Wijers (2014) Verhoeven (2017).

City Council (2019) ‘Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening Voor De Gemeente Den Haag (APV) [General Local Regulation for the Municipality of the Hague]’. Local Regulation – Public order and safety, Municipality of The Hague.

Heumann, S., Coumans, SV., Shiboleth, T., Ridder-Wiskerke, M. (2017) ‘The Netherlands: Analysing Shifts and Continuities in the Governing of Sexual Labour’, in Ward, E., Wylie, G. (ed.) Feminism, Prostitution and the State, pp. 46-65. New York: Routledge Studies in Gender and Global Politics.

[2] Pseudonyms were used to protect sex workers’ identities.

[3] Interview, member of Spot 46, 2019.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author

María Inés Cubides Kovacsics is Professional in Development Studies with an ISS major in human rights, gender, and conflict studies. I have a particular interest in gender and sexuality, labour rights, sex workers’ rights, youth, security, and restorative justice. I have worked for identifying and fighting discrimination, exclusion and rights violations suffered by historically marginalized people and communities, alongside LGBTQ communities, imprisoned transgender women, homeless people, sex workers, drug users, street vendors, teenagers and young people with deprivation of liberty sanction.

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Legal mobilization to end impunity for international crimes by Jeff Handmaker

In 2014, on the 20th of July, the Israeli military targeted and bombed a home in a refugee camp in Gaza, killing several family members of Saad Ziada, including his mother and three brothers. Since this day, Mr. Ziada, a Dutch citizen and resident of the Netherlands, has persistently been seeking justice through legal mobilization. Ziada’s search for justice reveals the immense challenges faced by individuals and organizations seeking to hold individuals accountable for international crimes through different forms of legal mobilization.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. Ziada’s family were some of the 2000 killed, overwhelmingly civilians, during this large-scale Israeli military operation, which was extensively documented by United Nations investigators as well as representatives of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. Numerous reports, including extensive dossiers that have been submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as part of a preliminary examination, allege that international crimes were committed during Israel’s 2014 military operation.

Holding individuals accountable who were allegedly responsible in either Gaza or Israel has been a non-starter. The Israeli government has not even acknowledged that crimes took place, let alone pursued investigations against the alleged individuals responsible for those crimes. Ziada has therefore been compelled to seek justice elsewhere.

The most common response to any crime committed by an individual is prosecution in the country where the crimes took place. Obviously, this is an unrealistic prospect in a country that is led by a government unwilling to even acknowledge that such crimes took place. But international crimes have a special character.

International crimes are described in the preamble of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court as “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Accordingly, multiple alternatives to prosecute international crimes have gradually emerged on the basis of what is described as “universal jurisdiction”. These alternatives include prosecution by the International Criminal Court or other specialized tribunal and prosecution in a “third country” that may have little to no association with the crime committed or the nationality of the alleged perpetrator.

The person who is prosecuted for international crimes doesn’t even need to have committed the alleged crimes themselves. For example, the Netherlands prosecuted the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven in relation to his complicity in war crimes committed in Liberia. In 2017, the Dutch Court of Appeal found Kouwenhoven to be criminally liable for his complicity in these crimes.

Alongside criminal jurisdiction, there is the possibility to sue an individual who is alleged to have committed an international crime for damages in a civil court. This is currently the basis of the case that has been brought to the Dutch District Court in The Hague by Ziada. The case is being brought against two Israeli military commanders who were believed to have ordered the bombing, including the former General Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Benny Gantz, who has been campaigning to become president of Israel.

Universal jurisdiction received significant attention in our 2019 book Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’, particularly in a chapter by Aisling O’ Sullivan. O’Sullivan argued how the struggle for ending impunity for international crimes is locked in a struggle between two competing approaches: on the one hand, there is a desire to hold individuals accountable for the most heinous of crimes; on the other, there is a desire to maintain order between nations which can be disrupted by these kinds of criminal trials. What further complicates matters are the different power positions between states and the tendency to give “deference to the interests of powerful states” (p. 180).

Universal jurisdiction was also the topic of a seminar that I co-organized in 2010 with Professor Liesbeth Zegveld, the outcome of which was contained in an ISS Working Paper. One of the key observations at this seminar was that “while some governments show a willingness to prosecute these crimes, others see this as a ‘problem’ and even advising their nationals / soldiers not to travel abroad” (p. 14).

What we observed then as a “relatively new area of the law” (p. 15) is now gaining currency, particularly in the courts of the Netherlands. Zegveld, who is also a prominent human rights lawyer, has represented several individuals and groups who have been seeking justice for international crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This includes the family of three men, including Rizo Mustafic, an electrician, who were killed during a massacre in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovnia by Serbian military forces in 1995. A Dutch military contingent was part of a United Nations military force stationed in Srebrenica at the time and was said to have mostly stood by while the massacre took place. In September 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court confirmed that the Dutch military commanders were partly responsible for not taking sufficient action to try and prevent the massacre.

Apart from the obvious political sensitivities involved in holding individuals accountable for international crimes, these kinds of cases are incredibly complex, not least the challenges of gathering evidence to prove what happened. There are also various cultural and other challenges associated with international criminal justice, particularly through international criminal tribunals, which I have discussed in other academic work.

Zegveld represents Ziada in the case that will be heard on 17th September, 2019. Will the outcome of this particular case of legal mobilization further advance the struggle against impunity for international crimes? There can be little doubt that international lawyers, human rights groups and concerned individuals around the world will be awaiting the outcome of this hearing with great anticipation.

Image Credit: Palestine Justice Campaign

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 



Can technology ‘decode’ developmental problems? by Oane Visser and Manasi Nikam

This article presents an interview with Dr. Oane Visser, Associate Professor in Rural Development Studies, at the International Institute of Social Studies. It shows ways in which technology can be used to address developmental problems. Dr. Visser coached six teams in a technological challenge about the ‘prevention of land grabbing’.

The Municipality of The Hague and the Data Science Initiative organized a hackathon for Peace, Justice and Security in November, 2018. It was supported by the International Criminal Court, NATO, Red Cross, World Vision and Asser Institute. The hackathon focused on creating innovative solutions using data science for problems focused on humanitarian disasters, fake news, evidence, emergency funds and land grabbing.[1] About 27 teams from 20 nationalities participated in this event. Monkey Code, one of the teams coached by Dr. Visser, won and was rewarded a cash prize of 10,000 Euros.

Here follows an excerpt from a conversation between Dr. Visser and Manasi Nikam.

Manasi: What was the purpose of the hackathon?

Oane: There are different kinds of hackathons. Often these are commercial, but this hackathon had societal and developmental relevance. The Hague being a city of peace, justice and security cannot promote these ideas without engaging with new technologies. The basic objective of the hackathon was to enable people sitting anywhere in the world to participate in designing solutions to developmental problems.

Manasi: What role did you play in the hackathon?

Oane: There were five different challenges, one of which was on preventing land grabbing. Asser Institute requested me to lead together the six teams that participated in this challenge. I guided these teams to understand the context of land grabbing and the kind of data they can collect.

Manasi: Can you tell me something about the winning team?

Oane: The winning team was Monkey Code. It is a tradition in hackathons to come up with funny names. The team had young staff members belonging to a Canadian, multinational ICT company.

Manasi: Just out of curiosity, how is it that a multinational company was interested in a hackathon that had social relevance?

Oane: The company does a lot of work for governments such as mapping migration patterns. So, they do have an interest in social issues.

Manasi: Can you tell us something about the tool that the winning team developed?

Oane: Yes. They combined existing databases such as satellite data, social media data, be it Twitter, real estate news groups and local media etc. to develop an algorithm that aims to predict areas in the world that are vulnerable to land grabbing.

Manasi: Do you think deploying technical solutions depoliticizes developmental problems?

Oane: Yes and no. There are some actors who promote techathons, big data, algorithms and think that they can do away with the difficult questions. But there are also others who acknowledge that one technical solution cannot solve the problem. In reality, a lot of politics comes in. For example: What does the algorithm focuses on? How do you define the problem? Who controls the solution? How is the data that is integrated being used? Those are the big issues in the usage of technology.  There is a strong belief among some that it is a magic bullet, very precise and accurate. Such thinking is a problem because the more social the data becomes, the less objective it tends to become.

Similarly, if the data is not valid, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm is, a coherent analysis cannot be made. There are also problems with someone taking the data out of the context and then analyzing it. The divide between Global South and North makes it riskier because many tech people are from the Global North or from emerging economies like India and China. Development projects around the world are implemented in collaboration with tech companies, who have their own particular interests such as getting data about citizens from developing countries. This gets partially subsidized by donor money under the facade of humanitarian aid.

Manasi: Why was the issue of land grabbing taken up?

Oane: Land grabbing is linked with local food security, dispossession of land, biofuels, energy and environmental problems. Around 2007, land grabbing caught attention globally, due to big deals being made in Madagascar and Ethiopia. But even before that, in Eastern Europe, a lot of land abandoned after the fall of the Berlin wall, was purchased by Western investors. Two advantages for investors who purchased land in countries like Romania have been 1. that the land was bought at a very low cost, meanwhile 2. geographic proximity to Europe means that the produce grown on the land can be sold easily in rich markets. Agriculture subsidies make it all the more profitable, as the amount of subsidy is linked to the size of the land. As the size of land owned increases, the amount of subsidy given also increases in relation to it.

In parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, there is also displacement of people and dispossession of land. The projects in these areas target western markets. As a result, food security in the local area is affected. Similarly, in industrial agriculture the use of pesticides de-grade the environment. Due to the domination of western investors in the land market, buying land becomes expensive for young and local farmers. Countries like Russia and Ukraine often become targets of land grabbing as their land is immensely fertile and institutions are weak. In fact, local authorities are themselves often involved in land grabbing practices.

Manasi: What is the next step after this hackathon?

Oane: We had several ‘problem recognition workshops’ with one hackathon team from Leiden University and this summer we presented the process so far at the EuroDIG conference at the World Forum in The Hague. I have been attending various hackathons this year focusing on agriculture and development related themes. Designing data driven solutions for developmental problems mean different complexities and limitations compared to regular hackathons. I would be interested in seeing what kind of additional information the tech solution can generate once a more sophisticated version of the tool is available.

[1] https://impactcity.nl/monkey-code-wins-hackathon-for-good-with-solution-to-prevent-land-grabbing/

Image credit: Rainforest Action Network on Flickr


About the authors:

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Dr. Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and automatization in agriculture.Manasi


Manasi Nikam is a student of MA in Social Policy for Development at ISS. She has co-authored ‘Children of India’ a chapter on the status of well-being of children, for Public Affairs Index 2018.


The Hague Peace Projects: practicing peace and justice by Helen Hintjens

How can peace and justice be embodied? How can we move from thinking about societal problems to taking concrete action to bring about change? The Hague Peace Projects, a program bringing together diaspora communities in The Hague to think and act together to build peace, shows us how these principles can be brought to life.

Art assumes many roles beyond acting as a canvas for self-expression, from creating greater consciousness of societal problems to serving as a platform for activism. It is a central element of The Hague Peace Projects (THPP), a program that promotes dialogue and campaigns for change through a variety of means. The project, which engages diaspora communities to advocate for peace, can inspire others to become involved in this or similar local initiatives to embody the change they aspire to.

On a (peace) mission

Located in The Hague, known as the City of Peace and Justice, THPP is one of several programs working with diaspora communities to involve them in contributing to positive change in their home countries and across Europe. The project’s main goals are to work toward a world in which conflict between humans, groups of people and countries are not solved by violence, but “through dialogue, respect for human rights, and honest cooperation between equals” (THPP).

THPP was established in 2015 by Jakob de Jonge, himself an artist. The project seeks to help find peaceful solutions to (armed) conflicts. It brings together diaspora from conflict zones that live in The Netherlands, facilitating their collaboration toward finding realistic solutions to local conflicts. The project is based on the belief that diaspora communities know best what causes conflict in their home regions and how such conflicts can be addressed in a non-violent manner. Through dialogue, social media, blogs and public events of all kinds, THPP contributes to diasporic dialogues. THPP also views art as a medium of communication for peace.

Change through action

Jakob explains that he was inspired by his friend Sylvestre Bwira, a Congolese human rights defender, to start this project. Jakob defines THPP as “both a think-tank and a do-tank” spreading “creativity and hope”. THPP’s approach echoes the goals of ISS, which increasingly places emphasis on the importance of scholar activism in bringing about change. Both organisations wish to be “critical but constructive”, grounded in “grassroots communities”, and reaching out to influence “platforms of power”.

THPP is reliant on volunteers, who in turn feel themselves part of a movement for social justice and peace. Having worked with THPP on several projects related to the African Great Lakes region, I put a few questions to Jakob:

Can you tell BLISS readers how art connects with advocacy through The Hague Peace Projects?

As a ‘socially engaged’ artist, it felt weird working alone in a studio. I wanted to connect with people as much as possible, so I decided to engage people through my art. Through visual art I try to present the disturbing mix of horror and beauty that we see in the world. What inspires me is the hope that things can be different if you genuinely desire it to be. Art is also a way to uncover a glimpse of optimism, in the belief that ideas come to life through visualisation, as with THPP’s exhibition The Survivors, in 2016, inspired by a Syrian boy’s drawings. Idealistic as it may seem, THPP is all about transforming reality, however slowly.

What THPP activities have touched you most deeply?

What moves me and keeps me going are the everyday life stories of colleagues I work with. THPP is based on working groups of diaspora members (mostly refugees) from different conflict regions around the world. Each working group establishes its own space for ongoing dialogue between conflicting communities. This creates basic trust between those who might otherwise fear to connect with others in daily life. This trust becomes fertile ground for all sorts of relevant peacebuilding activities.

Two things have especially moved me: First, many colleagues in the THPP working groups have a history of severe suffering. Team members have personally paid a high price for being seen as a member of a certain social group, or for speaking out for the rights of others. They have been tortured, detained, lost their families, witnessed unspeakable crimes and finally, have had to flee abroad. They often lost everything.

Coming from Sudan, the DRC, Bangladesh, Uganda, Syria, Burundi, Turkey, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, it strikes me how resilient, hopeful and committed to change they remain. The people I work with strive for positive outcomes, even when these are hard to imagine. It moves me very much when you see a person’s attitude change over time, from fearful, emotional and easily triggered, to more relaxed, open and creative.

Similarly, publicly commemorating the murder of Bangladeshi writer and free thinker Avijit Roy, as we have done annually since 2016 remains a very special moment. It is a powerful reminder you can never really silence someone through violence. Seeing friendships develop between Turks and Kurds, seeing Dutch Somalis getting together for something positive like Somali poetry, rather than the usual stigmatising divisions, or just dancing together at THPP office with people of every background, including Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. There have just been too many beautiful moments!

After three years, how do you reflect on working in the City of Peace and Justice?

I collaborate well and on many levels with The Hague Municipality. We fully support their mission of striving to be a City of Peace and Justice. In fact, that is how we chose our name. “The Hague” gives many people around the world hope that their tormentors may eventually end up in prison in Scheveningen!

At the same time I believe much more can be done to make the City of Peace and Justice more than a mission statement. The idea is very powerful and creates a kind of responsibility to be different from other cities. The challenge is to show what peace and justice look like in reality, not only internationally, but for all the city’s inhabitants, and across all layers of policy.

How can interested parties become involved?

We are a 99% volunteer organisation and rely heavily on volunteers for goodwill and to take initiative. We always need qualified and motivated people to join our network, so if you are interested, please send an email and your CV to info@thehaguepeace.org.

Main Photo: The Hague Peace Projects

20160917_190837Dr Helen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the ISS, working in the field of migration. Like Jakob, she graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. From 2015 to 2017, she collaborated with THPP to organise three African Great Lakes Diaspora conferences that were held at the ISS. The first conference report is on the THPP’s website; the second conference produced the Declaration and Plan of Action on the role of diaspora media in peacebuilding in the Great Lakes Region. The third conference on women, men and peacebuilding, will be reported on soon. Watch this space!