Sovereign citizen movement undermines democratic rule of law

People who declare themselves sovereign turn away from the government and other institutions. Although they tend to keep an open attitude towards other people, they do spread factually incorrect stories about the evil intentions of the institutions. This behaviour can undermine the democratic rule of law in the long run. Some sovereign citizens want to determine for themselves whether laws and regulations apply to them.

A small part of the sovereign citizen movement also poses a threat of violence in the short term. These are the main conclusions from the phenomenon analysis With its back to society by the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV), the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) and the National Police on the sovereign citizen movement in the Netherlands.

A diverse movement

People who declare themselves sovereign believe to a greater or lesser extent in "an evil elite". They believe that this elite is found not only in the legislative, judicial and executive branches but also within the media and science.

The phenomenon analysis distinguishes 3 categories of behaviour within the sovereign citizen movement. Those in the largest group want to live as independently as possible but do not consider themselves to be completely detached from society. A second category regards Dutch laws and regulations as invalid. For example, they refuse to comply with financial obligations, such as paying taxes and fines. A small group wants to violently resist the current system as a last resort.

The size of the sovereign citizen movement is not so large that it poses an existential threat to the democratic rule of law but there are concerns about the movement's continued growth and the existing breeding ground for its ideas.

Threat of violence

Although people who declare themselves sovereign in the Netherlands mainly have a non-violent past, recent incidents of intimidation and threats against local politicians, officials, judges, journalists and scientists, among others, have become more frequent. There have also been some minor violent confrontations with police and bailiffs.

The number of violent incidents is expected to increase, as some people who declare themselves sovereign are in increasing danger of getting into trouble because, for example, they are no longer paying their bills. By spreading an enemy image of an evil elite bent on oppression, slavery and even murder, some people who declare themselves sovereign may draw the conclusion that violent resistance is necessary.

For some of this already small group of a few dozen to a hundred people, it may go no further than grandstanding or threats. For others, however, such messages may legitimise violent action, for instance in response to traffic controls, arrests, bailiff visits or evictions. Some of this group of people who declare themselves sovereign go so far as to organise and prepare themselves online and physically to defend themselves in the expected violent battle with the government and institutions. They believe that the evil elite will initiate a violent struggle for which they must prepare themselves. Firearms and other weapons have been found in several supporters' homes.

Dealing with people declaring themselves sovereign

In response to this analysis, the Minister of Justice and Security and the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations sent a letter to the House of Representatives on how to deal with sovereign citizens.

The greatest urgency expressed in the phenomenon analysis is to protect our democratic rule of law and prevent people in vulnerable positions and their children from becoming victims. The government is pursuing 3 goals in this regard. First, to enforce the law when it is broken and to counter violent extremism. For persons with extremist views that could lead to extremist or terrorist activities, there is already the person-centred approach. That person-centred approach should be further developed for sovereign citizens with extremist views.

Municipalities take action where necessary with relevant partners from the security and social domain. This spring, the Minister of Justice and Security, together with the Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations and the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, will present a strategy against extremism, addressing all forms, including anti-institutional extremism and sovereign citizens.

The second goal is to prevent people from progressing further in behaviour aimed at undermining democracy. This can be done by limiting the influence of instigators, identifying and condemning behaviour that subverts democracy and making institutions more resilient.

Finally, efforts are aimed at ensuring that the movement does not grow larger. In doing so, it is important to make people resistant to anti-democratic narratives and to keep connecting with them. This demands a lot from professionals in local government but also from those in youth work and education, and from bailiffs or community police officers. Continuing to discuss criticism and mistrust, being honest about dilemmas and rebutting misinformation and disinformation are important here.

The Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations will elaborate on dealing with wider anti-institutional trends and how to strengthen the connection between society and government in a parliamentary letter this spring.