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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

The present constitution--which dates from 1848 and has been amended several times--protects individual and political freedoms, including freedom of religion. Although church and state are separate, a few historical ties remain; the royal family belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church (Protestant). Freedom of speech also is protected.

The country's government is based on the principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary government. The national government comprises three main institutions: the Monarch, the Council of Ministers, and the States General. There also are local governments.

The monarch is the titular head of state. The Queen's function is largely ceremonial, but she does have some influence deriving from the traditional veneration of the House of Orange--from which Dutch monarchs for more than three centuries have been chosen; the personal qualities of the Queen; and her power to appoint the formateur, who forms the Council of Ministers following elections.

The Council of Ministers plans and implements government policy. The Monarch and the Council of Ministers together are called the Crown. Most ministers also head government ministries, although ministers-without-portfolio exist. The ministers, collectively and individually, are responsible to the States General (parliament). Unlike the British system, Dutch ministers cannot simultaneously be members of parliament.

The Council of State is a constitutionally established advisory body to the government which consists of members of the royal family and Crown-appointed members generally having political, commercial, diplomatic, or military experience. The Council of State must be consulted by the cabinet on proposed legislation before a law is submitted to the parliament. The Council of State also serves as a channel of appeal for citizens against executive branch decisions.

The Dutch parliament consists of two houses, the First Chamber and the Second Chamber. Historically, Dutch governments have been based on the support of a majority in both houses of parliament. The Second Chamber is by far the more important of the two houses. It alone has the right to initiate legislation and amend bills submitted by the Council of Ministers. It shares with the First Chamber the right to question ministers and state secretaries.

The Second Chamber consists of 150 members, elected directly for a 4-year term--unless the government falls prematurely--on the basis of a nationwide system of proportional representation. This system means that members represent the whole country--rather than individual districts as in the United States--and are normally elected on a party slate, not on a personal basis. There is no threshold for small-party representation. Campaigns usually last 6 weeks, and the election budgets of each party tend to be less than $500,000. The electoral system makes a coalition government almost inevitable. The last election of the Second Chamber was in May 1998.

The First Chamber is composed of 75 members elected for 4-year terms by the 12 provincial legislatures. It cannot initiate or amend legislation, but its approval of bills passed by the Second Chamber is required before bills become law. The First Chamber generally meets only once a week, and its members usually have other full-time jobs. The current First Chamber was elected following provincial elections in March 1999.

The first-level administrative divisions are the 12 provinces, each governed by a locally elected provincial council and a provincial executive appointed by members of the provincial council. The province is formally headed by a queen's commissioner appointed by the Crown.

The current government, formed in August 1998, is a three-way "Purple Coalition" of the Labor (PvdA), Liberal (VVD), and Democrats '66 (D'66) parties headed by Prime Minister Kok of the PvdA. The coalition parties hold 97 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber of parliament. The main opposition parties are the Christian Democrats with 29 seats and the Greens with 13 seats. Given the consensus-based nature of Dutch Government, elections do not result in any drastic change in foreign or domestic policy.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Courts & Judgments

The basic principles of the Dutch rule of law stem from the Constitution. One of them is the principle that everything the government does must have its basis in Acts of Parliament. This principle also implies that courts may not apply criminal law retroactively. The separation of powers is another basic principle of the rule of law. It has applied in the Netherlands since the radical reform of the Constitution in 1848. One of its important manifestations is the independent judiciary.

Civil and criminal justice is administered in 61 Sub-district Courts, 19 District Courts, five Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Straightforward cases are heard first in the Sub-district Court, while more complicated (and all criminal) ones go straight to the District Court. Once a court has given a judgment, both the prosecution and defence are entitled to appeal against it to a higher court - appeals from Sub-district Courts going to the District Court, and those from District Courts going to the Court of Appeal. Each Court of Appeal serves a number of District Courts, which in turn each serve several Sub-district Courts.

The Supreme Court is the Netherlands highest court for both civil and criminal cases. It comprises a president, six vice-presidents, and 35 justices. It has the power to quash judgments given by lower courts if the lower court has applied the law incorrectly, but it does not examine the facts of the cases that come before it. Its main duty is to ensure the uniform application of the law. The Supreme Court may also give judgment in cases heard in the courts of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.

Case law established by the Supreme Court is an important source of law in the Netherlands. But the Supreme Court is not a constitutional court. It does not have the power to repeal an Act of Parliament on the grounds of incompatibility with the Constitution. The Constitution also rules out trial by jury and the imposition of the death penalty.

One power that the Supreme Court does have - in common with all Dutch courts - is that it may refuse to apply an Act of Parliament on the grounds of incompatibility with an international treaty. The Constitution was amended in 1953 to give primacy to universally binding international law. Another amendment passed in 1956 makes universally binding provisions of international agreements directly applicable in the Netherlands, that is, without the need for Dutch legislation. The Netherlands adheres to the doctrine of monism, whereby national and international law together form a single legal order.

As well as civil and criminal courts, the Netherlands has many other judicial bodies such as administrative tribunals and military courts. Administrative law provides legal protection for the individual citizen against government. Administrative disputes are normally heard first by the administrative division of a District Court. Appeals against judgments given there are heard by the Administrative Law Division of the Council of State, except for social security and public-service employment cases, which are heard by the Central Appeals Tribunal.

Source: Royal Netherlands Embassy to the U.S.

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Human Rights

The Dutch Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens in 2001, and the law and judiciary provided effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse. Violence and discrimination against women existed, as did child abuse. Discrimination and some violence against minorities continued to be a concern. Trafficking in women and girls for prostitution was a problem. The Government took steps to deal with all of these problems.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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