Opening remarks by Verhagen at Human Rights and New Media Conference

Opening remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, at the Human Rights and New Media conference, Theater Zeebelt, 19 April 2010

The Age of Connectivity:
How New Media can Advance Human Rights

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to this conference on human rights and new media. It’s even more special that we’re all assembled here this morning as air traffic over Europe has been completely disrupted from Thursday evening onwards as a result of the volcanic ashes drifting towards us from Iceland. The fact that no planes have been flying into the Netherlands for three days now, caused us to ask ourselves whether we shouldn’t call the conference off. But thanks to the extraordinary efforts of many people, we didn’t have to! First of all, I’d like to extend a very warm word of welcome to the human rights defenders that did manage to get here. Some of you got to Europe before the airports closed down, others came by boat, by train and by car in order to get to The Hague. You literally travelled the extra mile and that is much appreciated! We are very happy to have you here!

Out of the thirty plus human rights defenders that we were expecting, fourteen are here today. But that doesn’t mean that the rest is absent. Many people worked extremely hard over the weekend in order to make it possible for the others to “attend” the conference as well, if not in person then at least in spirit. The conference is broadcast on the internet through live stream, and we will be able to connect with some human rights defenders through Skype. So the “what” of this conference – new media – has also become the “how”: we are practising what we preach, as we speak! I am certain that in the future, this is how many conferences will be held: through the internet, making the best possible use of new communication technologies. The ash clouds forced us to be ahead of our times: we managed to turn this setback into an opportunity. I would like to ask a big round of applause for the people that made this conference new style possible, with a lot of creativity and determination: the team from True Heroes Film and the many volunteers that assisted them, not only in the Netherlands but in Macedonia as well, as I understand. Many thanks to you all!

Ladies and gentlemen,

New media has the power to effect positive change. I believe we should make full use of these new and unprecedented possibilities, while keeping in mind that there are also risks attached to using new media. That’s why I proposed this conference – it is one example of the many ways in which the Dutch government hopes to assist human rights defenders from around the world.

Last week I received the first copy of a book about Burma. The author, Peter de Ruiter, travelled to Burma and compiled beautiful images of ordinary people there. He presented me not only with a hard copy of his book, but an electronic version too. The e-book is cheaper to purchase and can be duplicated endlessly without any additional cost. Peter explained that he hoped the e-version of his book would be widely distributed, in Burma as well as elsewhere. And I am sure that it will find its way there. There are no boundaries to the free flow of information these days.

Or at least, there shouldn’t be.

We know that some governments are not so keen on granting their people free access to information and knowledge. That kind of enlightenment could threaten their very survival. We know that some governments try to restrict their citizens’ online activities. Clearly they don’t want certain images or stories to spread. And we know that some governments exploit the footprints their citizens leave on the internet, by hacking their e-mail accounts for example, which has even led to arrests and detention. In Vietnam, people have been sentenced to prison for expressing their views online. The recent dispute between the Chinese government and Google also springs to mind. As does the Iranian clampdown on the internet, blocking entire websites and social networking tools to stop protesters in their tracks.

This kind of interference is a violation of people’s rights. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that ‘e veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Those who drafted the Declaration obviously could not have foreseen the information revolution the world would witness at the end of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they were right to emphasise this point: that people should be free to seek information through any media, regardless of frontiers. They should be free to communicate; they should be free to connect. Including via the internet. There can be no doubt about that.

I agree with what President Obama said during his visit to China: ‘the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become.’ 1 But freedom of expression can only flourish in an environment where free and independent media are valued and protected. In many countries, however, people are fed only the news the government wants them to hear. There is no free press or independent news service. As part of our objective to promote human rights worldwide, the Dutch government aims to improve media diversity in countries where it is obviously lacking. Our projects are financed by the Human Rights Fund, which I created specifically to support local human rights defenders and their organisations. Activities include training journalists and helping set up independent websites and radio programmes. Last year, we focused on Burma, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Tomorrow, at this conference, the Dutch international public broadcasting service, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, will launch a website to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners around the world. You can see it right behind me now, on the screen. This website, ‘Prisoners of the Heart’, will provide a platform devoted to the situation of political prisoners, informing visitors about recent developments, presenting individual cases and promoting an exchange of views. I am very pleased that it will be online as from tomorrow.

The more people know about human rights violations, the harder it will be to oppress people. And knowledge is spreading. More rapidly than ever before.

It’s amazing to see how easily people can find, listen to and learn from each other, with the help of new technologies that are readily available. Just last week we heard that over one hundred million people worldwide now use Twitter. I happen to be one of them – and I love it! And four hundred million of the world’s people are on Facebook. Four hundred million! And they don’t merely share their holiday snapshots. They share their opinions too!

Thanks to the internet, ‘local’ and ‘global’ have become two sides of the same coin. Freedom of expression has gained a new, digital dimension in the twenty-first century.

I believe that ultimately there is no way of undoing this. Not with censorship and not with oppression. But there may be temporary obstacles, setbacks even, as we have seen in Iran, where strict censorship is being enforced. I have proposed that the European Union consider measures to enhance the free flow of information and promote counter-censorship in Iran. I would like the EU to restrict the export of relevant expertise to Iran and to encourage IT companies to practise self-restraint in their dealings with countries like Iran. I would also like to see the EU boost Iranian civil society’s capacity to withstand attempts at censorship, as the Netherlands has been doing in recent years. I applaud companies that take their corporate social responsibility seriously and that have agreed to a code of conduct. This is the case in the United States, where companies have signed up to a ‘Global Network Initiative’. I would like to see European companies do the same, so that they too send a clear message about the importance of fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have brought you together to discuss how you can get your message out using new media, but also to make you more aware of the risks involved. Those authorities seeking to restrict freedom of expression have the same new technologies at their disposal and will use them to their own advantage. This will be a very hands-on conference: a wide range of experts, from companies including Microsoft and ASN Bank , will be conducting practical workshops that cater to your needs.

I hope that you will all share your experiences – good and bad – over the course of the conference, and that you will return home with useful knowledge that helps you in your struggle. I hope that you will be able to share that knowledge with your peers. We will see to it that all the conference’s input will be assembled in a digital manual, especially also because so many of you couldn’t be here in person today and tomorrow. And above all, I hope that you will stay in touch with each other and reinforce each other’s efforts. I would like to see this conference result in a lasting network. A sort of LinkedIn for human rights defenders. So that you know that you are not alone in your struggle, but that there are others just like you, involved in similar missions in different parts of the world.

The Dutch government would like to be part of that connection. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with the Dutch embassy in your country, to keep our staff posted about your activities and to ask them for help if you need it. Our embassies’ doors should always be open to human rights defenders. You are the people that set positive change in motion. And in doing so, you show extraordinary moral courage. We must support you where we can.

Let’s get down to business. Amnesty International is campaigning on behalf of the Iranian human rights defender Emad Baghi who is in prison and in poor health . The Dutch government and the European Union have repeatedly voiced their concern over Mr Baghi’s arrest and treatment with the Iranian authorities, both here in The Hague as well as in Tehran. Amnesty is now collecting as many requests for his release as possible. But this time, instead of sending letters, people are sending text messages, which Amnesty will pass on to the Iranian authorities.

So, ladies and gentlemen, get your phones at the ready for Emad Baghi. He, too, needs to feel that he is not alone in his struggle. He, too, should know that he is part of this network, part of this connection. This worldwide connection for human rights.

Thank you.

1 Cited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her speech on internet freedom, 21 January 2010 )