Speech at the presentation of the Geuzen Medal 2014

Speech of Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans at the presentation of the Geuzen Medal to Thomas Hammarberg.

Vlaardingen, Grote Kerk, Thursday 13 March 2014

Robert Kennedy said: ‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

Staying with that imagery, Thomas Hammarberg’s achievements amount to a great tidal wave, which has spread out in many different directions. One thing has remained constant throughout his career: the conviction that human rights are universal and apply to everyone in equal measure.

His ceaseless, impressive efforts to promote human rights are clear in everything he has done. In his work as a young journalist who made human rights his main focus: as an employee and later Secretary-General of Amnesty International; as Secretary-General of Save the Children Sweden; as Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe; and in his current position as UN senior expert on human rights.

It takes a special kind of resolve to defend an ideal not just once or twice, but repeatedly. Human rights defenders often swim against the tide and face constant setbacks. But people like Thomas Hammarberg, who stand up and make their voices heard, are invaluable.

Sometimes people who hold ideals, especially in the field of human rights, face criticism. They are accused of living in a world of their own, far removed from reality. I disagree. Idealists are actually the best people to keep us focused on what is really going on.

Too often, ordinary people and their rights are betrayed by a cruel reality. Idealists are not blind to that reality. In fact, they see it more clearly than anyone. And so they understand why the world needs to change.

The Dutch government greatly values Mr Hammarberg’s work. Not least for the priority he gave as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner to promoting equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. These efforts led directly to improvements in LGBT rights in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. In this country, new legislation was recently enacted for transgender individuals, thanks in no small part to criticism from Mr Hammarberg. He has been a pioneer.

- Criticism of human rights

The former Dutch foreign minister Max van der Stoel noted that people have both good and bad in them, and often at the same time. While bearing that in mind, Van der Stoel continued to seek out the good. In his own work, Thomas Hammarberg has demonstrated a similar dedication and drive. Human rights symbolise the good in people – the ‘light’, as it were. This ‘light’ has to battle against the forces of exclusion, discrimination and persecution. Universal human rights may have been enshrined in the 20th century in United Nations conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights, but that doesn’t mean we can take them for granted in practice.

We can see that various forms of tribal mentality are on the rise. Universal human rights face increasing resistance, here in Europe as well as elsewhere. Politicians attack the European Court of Human Rights when its judgments displease them. In many cases they accuse the Court’s judges of being ignorant of national traditions.

I agree with Thomas Hammarberg that relying on history, tradition or culture will seldom, if ever, justify disregarding human rights. As Human Rights Commissioner, he wrote: ‘the court room is not a political arena’. Judges are not politicians. They have a different role and shouldn’t be placed under political pressure. This principle is essential to the rule of law.

The complaint that judges at the European Court disregard democratic customs is an odd one. Naturally, we need to guard against ‘human rights inflation’. But it is essential for judicial independence that judges be free to reach their judgments, even ones which call into question decisions that have been reached democratically. Sometimes those democratic decisions are incompatible with human rights. So we should be grateful for judges who retain their independence. We need them to safeguard human rights, however much it upsets national politicians. By definition, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to human rights. It’s essential to have strong institutions to defend them. And those institutions deserve our unconditional support.

If we want to carry any authority abroad when we speak of human rights, we need to pay attention to the human rights situation in our own country and in Europe more broadly. We must deal with criticism or recommendations from international organisations in a self-aware manner and amend our laws where necessary. The Council of Europe’s work on the rule of law is of great value, just like its work to promote human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, the rule of law doesn’t always function as well as it should – including in the EU member states. The Netherlands is working to promote transparent government, judicial independence, compliance with human rights, antidiscrimination policy and legislation to tackle corruption and conflicts of interest effectively.

To boost the integrity of the rule of law in Europe, and therefore human rights too, the Netherlands has joined forces with Germany, Finland and Denmark to advocate an instrument to monitor the rule of law in EU countries.

- Human rights in a changing world

Sometimes it seems the world is changing so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Social media services may have become an indispensable part of our lives, but most of them are barely ten or even five years old. And it’s only in the past couple of years that we’ve been able to surf the internet on our smartphones at the speed we’re now accustomed to.

In the past five years, large numbers of us have watched live streams together or followed social media postings. We watched events unfold in Iran in 2009, the Arab Spring of 2011, the war in Syria, and the demonstrations and revolutions in Ukraine and Venezuela. In real time we can see how women in the Middle East are fighting for equality and how gay people in Uganda are being brutally persecuted. In recent years the visibility of both human rights violations and human rights defenders has increased in spectacular fashion.

Protecting freedom of expression and internet freedom is crucial in today’s world. The Dutch government firmly supports Mr Hammarberg’s decision to prioritise these issues. Freedom of expression and privacy are the driving forces behind freedom, democracy and the free exchange of ideas. They are important in themselves, but essential to other human rights too.

The Netherlands supports free and open internet access, for instance through the Freedom Online Coalition. Set up two years ago, the coalition advocates internet freedom throughout the world. The Netherlands also supports various other online freedom initiatives. Take the recent efforts aimed at Iran. Training people in online skills, cyber security and internet governance can help make internet freedom a reality there too. Through the Digital Defenders Partnership we provide financial support to bloggers and cyber activists who are under threat. Although the technological nature of discussions about data might make you think otherwise, ultimately it all comes down to real people of flesh and blood.

The increased visibility of what’s happening in the world brings with it greater responsibility for all of us. If we really believe that human rights are universal, we need to keep up our efforts to promote them, every day. If we stop, the current which, in Robert Kennedy’s words, ‘can sweep down the mightiest walls’, will dry up. Only if we keep doing our best every day – together and as individuals – to create these ripples, will human rights ultimately triumph.

It’s an honour to have a great human rights defender like Thomas Hammarberg among us today. He should be proud of his Geuzen Medal. And the Geuzen Medal should be proud to have such an impressive laureate.