Racism within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: ‘This is not who we want to be.’

The global Black Lives Matter protests were one of the reasons the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned an investigation on racism within its own organisation. The conclusions of the investigation paint a clear picture. Secretary-General Paul Huijts, the Ministry’s most senior official, responds. ‘You can be sure we will redouble our efforts to change for the better.’

Enlarge image Secretaris-generaal Paul Huijts met oud-nieuwslezeres Noraly Beyer tijdens de presentatie van het onderzoek naar racisme bij BZ op 12 december 2022.
Secretary-General Paul Huijts with former newsreader Noraly Beyer during the presentation of the investigation on racism within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 12, 2022.

You are the highest boss within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. How does it feel when such harsh conclusions about your organisation are presented?

‘It was awful to read. It is truly mortifying. Especially because it shows how colleagues are forced to deal with racism in all kinds of ways. From flat-out racism to inappropriate jokes. It is more than hurtful. It gives those colleagues a deep sense of not belonging.

Racism is so far removed from who we want to be: a diverse, inclusive organisation in which people are welcome and feel valued for their contribution. Where people feel they receive equal treatment. Racism is the total opposite of that.’

A Delft Blue platter bearing the text of Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution has a prominent place in Huijts’ office. The first phrase: All who are in the Netherlands, receive equal treatment in equal cases. The Secretary-General has brought these words with him to every one of his workplaces in The Hague over the past fifteen years. 

‘I was raised believing that no person has the right to look down on another just because of what they happen to own, or they have a good position.

Yes, I grew up in privilege, but that was because my father fought to be free from a very basic background. He always told me that there are two kinds of people. People who are good and people who are not. And all other differences do not matter.’

How painful is this report?

‘Racism excludes. Racism puts people away as inferior. I find that truly awful. Any case of racism at all is one too many. Racism cannot and must not exist. There can be no discussion about that.

I deeply regret that we have been unable so far to offer a safe work environment in which this type of thing does not occur. In which people do not have to suffer through this. This is also why I apologised, on behalf of the Senior Management Board, to our colleagues who suffered from racism.'

There have been incites on social media to take disciplinary actions against the people who have made these statements. Will you be doing that?

‘Let me get one thing straight, we will take a firm line with people who overstep the mark. However, this investigation alone does not provide us with the right pointers because colleagues have told their stories anonymously. Before we can take any disciplinary actions, we must make sure that we know who the report is about, hear the other party, and establish the facts.

For now, the most important thing is breaking down the barriers to disclosing misconduct.

I want to stress to everyone who has experienced anything to come forward and not to let it linger. Please open up, and if it is of help directly to the person concerned. And otherwise to you manager or one of the confidential advisers or the Central Coordinator for Integrity.’

Some respondents from the investigation stated that there is more racism within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs than in other government organisations. Do you share that conclusion?

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

It is true, however, that Foreign Affairs is the most diverse ministry among all departments. We have local employees all over the world, 120 nationalities in all. So it is likely that there are more contacts and more opportunities for inappropriate behaviour within the Ministry.

Of course, it is extra painful that it is Foreign Affairs out of all ministries where this happens. We believe of ourselves that we look at other cultures around the world with an open attitude. So this is not who we want to be. And I am sure that this is true for most of our colleagues by far.’

What would you like to say to colleagues within the Ministry who have had to deal with racism?

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

You can be sure we will redouble our efforts to change for the better. Better prevention, better action and institutional change (in Dutch), this is what we will be working on. As the report requires us to.

I also hope that people will feel more and more free to report incidents. Or to talk to a colleague whenever something happens to them. We need to foster that kind of culture.’

There are colleagues for whom these findings are a total surprise. What would you like to tell them?

‘This report makes us face the facts: even here within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, things happen that are plainly wrong. Yes, even here. That is not the same as saying that the Ministry is bad, however. The large majority of our colleagues have the right attitude, but the report does open our eyes. You see how much you can hurt someone else. Even with statements that the originator thinks are funny or are not meant to be hurtful.

We really need to be more careful about this. We are all responsible for the culture within our organisation, especially and even more so with regard to racism. You cannot simply let things happen and think that someone else will solve it. It is not okay to be the silent observer.

We have to make sure that we eliminate racism within the Ministry, together. This is the task we have been set, and that is what we are going to do.’