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Sovereign citizens hold up a mirror to the government

09 July 2024

Luuk de Boer studies ‘sovereign citizens’, people who reject the government’s authority. For his research, he is staying in St. Louis, one of the most segregated cities in the US. The gap between rich and poor is immense. De Boer is not there for his sovereigns research specifically, although the US is certainly an interesting place in that respect, because the group of sovereign citizens on the other side of the pond is huge.

Text: Merel Weijer, Corporate Communication UG

picture Luuk de Boer
'Sovereigns believe that the entity we are is different from the identity that has been forced upon us by the government' (Photo: Reyer Boxem)

Person of flesh and blood

De Boer, assistant professor of General Law Studies, tells me that my name alone would have given it away if I had been a sovereign. I would be called Merel, person of flesh and blood, or Merel of the Weijer family, rather than M.H. Weijer, like it says in my passport now. Sovereigns believe that the entity we are is different from the identity that has been forced upon us by the government. They say that they were born twice: once from the womb, and once legally when they were registered in the population register and were given a citizen service number. This second identity is who the government deals with. Sovereigns also say that they have not signed a contract with the government and the Tax and Customs Administration. In short, sovereign citizens reject authority and refuse to conform to the legal system of their country. De Boer: ‘Everyone has different reasons for becoming sovereign. They’re often people who have lived through a crisis or conflict with the government and use this to take back control over their lives. In the 70s and 80s, American farmers were expropriated in their masses. That is when the movement gained momentum.’

Distancing yourself from the government

Because the motivations differ greatly, it is difficult to get a handle on the group, says De Boer. There is no organizational form. It looks like a kind of chain of people that distance themselves from government authority for all kinds of reasons. One thing they all have in common is their negative attitude toward the government. According to the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD), around 20,000 or 30,000 people can be classified as sovereigns in the Netherlands.  In his research, De Boer mainly looks at what happens to sovereign citizens in the judiciary. He looks at characteristics, ways in which they deal with authority, and the way they express themselves. According to De Boer, a certain pattern can be discerned here. Across the world, sovereigns file lawsuits against the state, for example, in which they claim a government’s trust fund because they think they are entitled to a large sum of money.

picture of Luuk de Boer
'Everyone has different reasons for becoming sovereign. They’re often people who have lived through a crisis or conflict with the government and use this to take back control over their lives' (Photo: Reyer Boxem)

What is wrong with the Netherlands?

De Boer lists a couple of stock responses to sovereigns. The first one is to pathologize them: ‘These people are all crazy’. An easy way out, according to De Boer, because by saying this you can place someone outside of society and no further action would be required. A second response is to criminalize someone. Recently, a new provision was included in the Austrian legal code, which states that groups that hold these convictions are immediately criminalized. A real risk here is that the government becomes some kind of thought police. A third response is to laugh it away or ridicule it. In doing so, you are not taking this group seriously and you exclude them from the dialogue. And this while engaging in dialogue is exactly what you should be doing, according to De Boer. ‘There is a broad crisis of confidence in the Dutch legal system and this is a good example of that. You could also use these people as a mirror to look at yourself and reflect on the things that aren’t going well, rather than only looking at what’s wrong with these people. You could ask yourself what’s wrong with the Netherlands that makes these people feel forced to resort to these kinds of ideas.’

Solve it in society

The responses to sovereigns clearly show that the government is unsure how to react to them, which results in attempts to keep the problem out the door and not take it seriously. De Boer would rather see the government acknowledging the fact that the problem originates in society and also needs to be solved there. ‘You can throw people in jail, but then you place them outside of society and that doesn’t solve the problem. Chances are, in fact, that the problem will only grow bigger.’ According to De Boer, you should go into  society, talk to people, or offer training courses. ‘You have to make sure you become a resilient democracy and have a resilient rule of law that convinces people of the value of the great project. Right now, we mainly struggle to see this problem as something we caused ourselves.’

presentation 'the broken promise of constitutional state'
‘Take the sovereigns’ ideas seriously and ultimately try to convince them that the government is also their government' (Photo: Reyer Boxem)

When someone hates the state

According to De Boer, the sovereigns case offers a wonderful opportunity  to fundamentally reconsider how processes in the judiciary and society work. ‘Take the sovereigns’ ideas seriously and ultimately try to convince them that the government is also their government. This can’t be achieved in a single conversation. An often heard saying is that you need six positive experiences to counteract one negative one.’ An additional difficulty is that this type of citizens usually only come to the surface when it is already too late, when they are already in deep trouble, especially when they have to appear in court. Giving an alternative response to sovereigns than the ones mentioned above takes time, patience, and money, but it will eventually yield results, De Boer thinks. Certainly in this group’s case. ‘When someone already hates the state and you provide them with a whole new set of negative experiences and throw them in jail, it will not result in anything positive.  That is the legal system’s dilemma.’

Big social problem

In the end, it is a social problem that needs to be solved, says De Boer. ‘We have to be careful that the legal system does not become some kind of cure-all. You cannot lay everything down in the legal code. Technically, it is a big social problem created by a system that has its shortcomings here and there. This can also be seen in other problems with citizens, such as the handling of the Groningen earthquake problem or the childcare benefits scandal. Do you want to hear and see these people, or don’t you? The government should work to ‘win back’ the citizens that have had negative experiences.’

Strike a few nerves

De Boer says it is crucial to talk to sovereigns about where their ideas come from and what they are based on. If they feel heard, that is usually already a step in the right direction. For his follow-up study, De Boer would like to talk to as many parties involved as possible. At the moment, a lot of the talking is about the sovereigns and not with the sovereigns. This means talking to judges, bailiffs, municipalities, and, preferably, with the sovereign citizens themselves as well eventually. According to De Boer, it would be good to portray this group in a more positive light. This is necessary because they have a tendency to strike a few nerves, and also because their convictions are often built on a tragic event. ‘Consider the problem with this group of people as an opportunity for self-reflection because they hold up a mirror to society. Decrease the distance to the citizen instead of increasing it, listen to them, and take them seriously. That is the start of a solution.’

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Last modified:08 July 2024 09.36 a.m.
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