Racism at BZ: ‘This is not who we want to be.’ | News item

News item | 13-12-2022 | 13:18

The worldwide Black Lives Matter protests were one of the reasons for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct an investigation into racism in its own organisation. The conclusions of the research do not lie. Secretary-General Paul Huijts, the highest official at the ministry, responds. “Rely on us to redouble our efforts to change for the better.”

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Secretary-General Paul Huijts with former newsreader Noraly Beyer during the presentation of the investigation into racism at BZ on 12 December 2022.

Secretary-General Paul Huijts with former newsreader Noraly Beyer during the presentation of the investigation into racism at BZ on 12 December 2022.

You are the highest boss within BZ. What does it do to you when such hard conclusions are drawn about your organization?

‘I found it very unpleasant to read. You literally love it. Especially because you get a picture of colleagues who are confronted with racism in all kinds of ways. From blatant racism to an unwanted joke. That is more than hurtful. That’s how those colleagues get the deep feeling: I don’t belong.

Racism is in stark contrast to who we want to be: a diverse, inclusive organization, where people are welcome and feel valued for what they contribute. Where people feel treated equally. Racism does the exact opposite.’

Prominent in Huijts’ office is a Delft blue plate with the text of Article 1 of the Constitution. First sentence: all who are in the Netherlands are treated equally in equal cases. The Secretary-General has been taking the words with him to all the workplaces he has had in The Hague for about fifteen years.

‘I was taught from home that no human being has the right to look down on another, because of what you happen to possess, or because you have a good position.

Yes, I grew up privileged myself, but that is thanks to my father who fought his way out of a very humble environment. He always told me: there are two kinds of people. People who are good and people who are not good. And all other differences don’t matter.’

How painful is this report?

Racism is out. Racism puts people off as inferior. I think that’s really bad. Any case there is is one too many. Racism is not allowed, racism is not allowed. There’s no discussion about that.

I am deeply sorry that we have not yet been able to provide a safe working environment where this kind of thing does not occur. In which people do not have to undergo this. That is why I also apologized on behalf of the Executive Council to colleagues who were confronted with his racism.’

On social media you see calls for disciplinary action against the people who made these statements. Are you going to do that?

‘Let me start by saying that we will deal with colleagues who cross the line. But this exploratory study alone does not provide any leads for this, because employees have told their story on the basis of anonymity. Before you can punish someone, you need to know who the report is about, there must be a hearing and the facts must be established.

It is important that we lower the thresholds for reporting.

I want to impress on everyone who has experienced something: don’t get stuck with it. Start the conversation. With the person concerned if that can offer a solution. And otherwise with your manager, one of the confidential advisers and the integrity coordinator.’

Some respondents to the survey indicate that racism is worse at BZ than at other government organisations. Do you share that conclusion?

‘I cannot judge that on the basis of this report. People have been asked to come forward with their experiences. That makes it difficult to say whether it is worse here than elsewhere.

It is true that BZ is the most diverse ministry of all departments. We have local employees all over the world, 120 nationalities in total. So within BZ there are probably more contacts and more opportunities for wrong behaviour.

It is of course extra painful that this is precisely about BZ. We consider ourselves to look at all cultures in the world with an open mind. So this is not what we want to be. And I’m sure this applies to the vast majority of Foreign Affairs employees.’

What would you like to say to colleagues who have been confronted with racism within BZ?

‘I hope that with this report we send the signal: we see what is happening and we take it very seriously.

Count on us to redouble our efforts to change for the better. Better prevention, better action and institutional changes are what we are working hard on. As the report also asks of us.

I also hope that people will feel more and more free to report something. Or to consult a colleague if something happens to them again. That culture must be there.’

There are colleagues for whom the findings come as a complete surprise. What would you like to give them?

‘This report puts us face to face with the facts: bad things happen at BZ too. Yes, also at BZ. But that’s not the same thing that BZ is no good. The vast majority of colleagues have a good attitude towards life.

But this report does open our eyes. You see how much you can hurt another. Also with comments of which the channel may think: this is funny, or: I don’t mean anything by that.

We really need to handle that better. We are all responsible for the culture within our organization. The same applies to racism. You can’t let things happen and think someone else will fix it. It’s not okay to be a silent spectator.

Together we must ensure that we eradicate racism at BZ. That is our assignment, and we are going to carry it out.’