The voice of Barbara Oomen

This is an interview in the series Women around the world, a mosaic of feminine impressions and inspiration in times of Corona

The interview was held in English by Cécile Masson author and leadership coach

Voices are silenced that have every right to be heard

Barbara Oomen is the author of several books on human rights. She holds a chair in Sociology of Human Rights at Utrecht University and works at the University College Roosevelt, in the province of Zeeland, The Netherlands, where she was the Dean from 2012 -2016. Her research focuses on the interplay between law and society, with a special emphasis on human rights and cultural diversity.

Barbara is very aware of the disasters in other regions of the world that are happening due to COVID-19, yet on a personal level the lockdown has been a gift allowing her to enjoy lunches with her three sons and her husband.

She considers herself to be a teacher before anything else. The lockdown forced her and her colleagues to discover on-line teaching where before she interacted in small classes with her students. The physical space of a classroom has a quality that is intangible yet that intangibility turns out to be also very important and she cannot wait to meet them again. Students worked hard also in virtual settings, yet meeting in person has extra benefits.

Barbara is deeply concerned that the most vulnerable people and communities are being hit hardest by this pandemic. In India migrant workers are beaten off the streets, yet also in The Netherlands children who do not have parents that can help them with their lessons get behind, and the elderly suffer too. The slaughterhouses in The Netherlands and also elsewhere, where migrant workers were forced to work in conditions that were clearly dangerous are shocking to see.

A pattern she also observes is what Naomi Klein, described in her book The Shock Doctrine, ‘often a crisis is used to really push through unwanted development,’ and Barbara has observed this tendency in The Netherlands and other countries. The Dutch government has been very quick to loosen regulations for big businesses that for the normal Dutch citizen are unwanted, with the danger that these privileges will not go away once the pandemic wave has passed.

In constitutional law there are three interests or elements.

· The interest of a strong state that helps to curve for instance the danger of a pandemic,

· Democratic control of that same state on behalf of the population so that citizens can look over the shoulders of the state,

· The individual human rights.

This triangle goes under the rule of law. What she observes is that the state has really strengthened itself, but democratic control has been totally lacking. It has been particularly difficult for elected representatives to control the extremely far fetching measures. When it concerned individual rights the awareness to weighing the measures in terms of infringements of personal human rights was simply not present in the Government.

In The Netherlands elderly living in homes were not allowed to see family members for months. That is an infringement on the right of family life, which can be put in place for health reasons, but from a human rights perspective you need to look if it is proportional in each and every individual case. The measures were not taken by law, which means that parliament could not have its say. So the rule of law was not applied.

The rule of law was curbed. Referring back again to the book ‘Shock Doctrine’, very far-fetching measures have been taken without putting them before the elected representatives of the people and without explicit attention for the rights of citizens.

This reveals again the lack of attention for the rule of law and democratic decision-making in this and other countries.

If you look at other European countries and the UK they had a much more balanced debate with a Corona Act, for instance in the UK. Here, they debated much more with parliament also considering the human rights. In The Netherlands we did not do that, measures are introduced by means of emergency decrees put in place by unelected officials, of the safety regions. That gave them the power to close down businesses, find people 390 Euro’s without a democratic control.

Barbara is deeply concerned that if this passes unnoticed without being criticised it might become the ‘new normal’ that a prime minister in a press conference is allowed to bring measures to the people without the elected of the people having any saying in the measures taken.

A conversation should be held in the circles of government on national and provincial level on the consequences of the decision making with regards to human rights. The people who we elected should hold this conversation. It should be held with the constitution and the human rights at hand.

The measures taken have disproportionally impacted on certain groups and people.

For Barbara it is not a coincidence that the first big public eruption of anger occurred around Black Lives Matter. The systematic biased approach of the Dutch and the US government has certainly made that some people have felt the pain much more than others.

In the response of uttering that pain you see the same dynamics repeating themselves.

In the beautiful province of Zeeland there is a history of slavery and it still has an institutionalised problems of racism like in other parts of the world. Young protesters from all over the province wanted to make a point that some people are being threatened differently than others. The local government allowed the demonstration but with not more than 500 people, which means than many who wanted to have their voice heard could not be heard. Again, the people who took the decision were the people of the ‘safety region’ who are not elected representatives of the citizens. They took away the right to protest, which is a fundamental human right.

As a result, people who had already been systematically disadvantaged for many years and again during the first COVID-19 wave, could not get onto the Abbey Square and have their voices heard. That is were the same pattern is revealed:

· Lack of attention for human rights

· Lack of attention for democratic decision making

With as a result that certain voices are silenced that have every right to be heard.

Barbara is passionate about human rights and to her it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman, what religion you practice, what the colour of your skin or your sexual identity is. She believes in equal treatment, the right to equal treatment and dignity. That is at the core of all her activities.

She has worked as an author, researcher and teacher these last years yet especially this last year her frustration augmented seeing how unequal people are being treated in her own country. She has taken the decision to go into politics and start a new chapter of her life by running for office for parliament with the Social Democrats.

To be a teacher is the best way to make the world a better place. However many young people lose confidence in politics and the institutions. Yet if you really want to change things, we should take the institutions such as parliament seriously, by working on change from the inside.

For that we need more female leaders in politics. She is shocked to see how little women are present in parliament, in ministerial posts and obviously the same applies for professorships.

Barbara is a great fan of the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said: ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’

The difference that the individuals can make is so important and underestimated. We can all do more than we think we can.

One way to do so is by augmenting each other’s voices. Make people’s voices heard and translate that into a more just and equal world.

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