Science
Luuk de Boer: ‘Autonomists do hold up a mirror to us to some extent.’ Photo by Reyer Boxem

What motivates sovereign citizens

Quitting
the system

Luuk de Boer: ‘Autonomists do hold up a mirror to us to some extent.’ Photo by Reyer Boxem
Increasingly often, judges deal with people who refuse to recognise the rule of law. To understand the issue, law professor Luuk de Boer studied hundreds of cases involving these sovereign citizens. There was one thing they all had in common: ‘They feel powerless.’
5 March om 9:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 March 2024
om 11:30 uur.
March 5 at 9:51 AM.
Last modified on March 6, 2024
at 11:30 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Rob van der Wal

5 March om 9:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 6 March 2024
om 11:30 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

March 5 at 9:51 AM.
Last modified on March 6, 2024
at 11:30 AM.

Late 2023. In The Hague, an office belonging to the Supreme Court is filled with nineteen moving boxes, all filled to the brim with letters. They are declarations from sovereign citizens, people who refuse to pay fines and taxes and who no longer accept judges’ decisions. It concerns a growing group of people who believe the government has no power over them. 

‘It usually involves people who’ve come into contact with authorities like youth care’, says assistant professor of law Luuk de Boer. For his research into the impact of sovereign citizens on the legal system, he looked at at least a hundred court cases. ‘I’ve seen a lot of cases of sovereign citizens whose children were removed from the home. They tend to be in a lot of debt. Sometimes, entire families become homeless.’

For people like this, De Boer has noticed, the idea of sovereignty represents a way out of their problems. ‘Sovereign citizens feel powerless and oppressed by the state. They’re very attracted to the idea of forming their own state, where they make the rules. That gives them back that power.’

Free state

Some people take it even further. They return their passport to the government and genuinely try to create their own state. In 2015, this led to the creation of Wonderland, a self-proclaimed free state on the border between the Netherlands and Germany, near Coevorden. The area has since been evacuated by the municipality several times, but people keep coming back.

In their own state, they make the rules and that gives them back that power

‘States like Wonderland aren’t legitimate, obviously’, says De Boer.  ‘But many of the countries we do accept today came out of similar conflicts or acts of suppression. The United States, for instance, freed themselves from suppression by the British. Today, everyone accepts America as a real state, but then we say that sovereign citizens making a similar claim is unacceptable. Why do we accept other states but not them? That’s a mystery I haven’t solved yet.’

He can, however, explain why the idea of sovereign citizenship has been gaining in popularity in the Netherlands. ‘It’s become a big thing in English-speaking countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and England, and we consume a lot of English-language media. When you’re interested in something like that, algorithms will keep suggesting YouTube videos from sovereign citizens from those countries.’

In 2022 in Germany, security forces had to take action because sovereign citizens were planning a coup. ‘That isn’t happening here yet, but it could’, says De Boer. ‘Police once arrested an ex-military sovereign citizen who was trying to buy weapons.’

No authority

For now, Dutch sovereign citizens mainly affect and frustrate the legal system, De Boer realised from the cases he studies. ‘They always have the same arguments: they didn’t sign a contract with the government, so they aren’t part of the system. They take this very literally: they want a real, signed contract, but that’s obviously impossible.’

Besides, sovereign citizens tend to question the state’s legitimacy. They claim that its laws and institutes are so inadequate that all existing laws are invalid and the institutes have no authority. According to them, any and all Dutch laws made after May 1940 are invalid, because power was never properly transferred back to the Netherlands after the Second World War.

They didn’t sign a contract with the government, so they’re not part of the system

Then there’s the so-called ‘strawman principle’: according to sovereign citizens, the law only applies to natural people and legal entities – the strawmen – and not to the ‘people of flesh and blood’ they claim to be.

This can lead to strange situations in the courtroom. There was a case in 2013, where a sovereign citizen claimed not to be the person who was featured on his passport, which he was carrying with him. When the judge asked him to leave because he refused to prove his identity, the sovereign citizen asked the judge to recuse himself because he felt he wasn’t impartial. The sovereign citizen claimed that he ‘hadn’t been treated like a human being or sovereign person, but rather like a citizen subject to Dutch law’.

Gurus

Some sovereign citizens even consider their taxes to be a gift to the government they can claim back. They say that the tax administration is registered as a public benefit organisation and that payments to these organisations are deductible.

It sounds weird, deducting taxes from your taxes. ‘And of course at least a dozen judges have already said this is impossible’, says De Boer. ‘But the sovereign citizens keep trying with the court.’

Then there are the so-called gurus, people who proclaimed themselves sovereign citizens decades ago and who lure other people into their world with courses and financial advice. ‘They make a lot of money off of vulnerable people, and they show up in all these court cases involving sovereign citizens’, says De Boer. ‘They could actually be dealt with more harshly than they’re doing now; they should be given penalties or be refused as representative in court.’

Institutes should actively involve citizens in society

In less severe cases, a good talk can help. ‘One of the suggestions in my research is to issue a verdict that systematically lists, explains, and dismisses the arguments by sovereign citizens’, he says. ‘But unfortunately, there usually isn’t enough time in the legal system for things like that.’

Sometimes, just a talk is enough, says De Boer. ‘There was a case in Australia where a judge encountered a sovereign citizen. After the hearing, he asked the man if he could join him. They had an intense discussion for a few hours, after which the sovereign citizen realised that what he believed was nonsense. These days, he’s keeping a close eye on the movement in Australia.’

Mirror

Nevertheless, it’s a difficult issue to tackle, De Boer says. ‘I will not definitively solve this problem.’ I think some people are simply in too deep. But it would help if institutes stopped seeing sovereign citizens as just thorns in their side that they want to get rid of and see if we can’t actively involve these people in our society. I would like to set up a training course for government agencies in the future.’

He emphasises that he doesn’t condone the sovereign citizens’ behaviour. ‘But in many ways, they kind of hold up a mirror to us. They feel like big companies like Amazon don’t have to pay taxes, while we citizens do. There’s no solidarity.’

He understands where they’re coming from. ‘We all know that something’s not quite right there. However, the solution shouldn’t be for them not to pay taxes, but for Amazon to be taxed more.’

Dutch