Speech by Minister Blok on awarding Human Rights Tulip

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok on awarding the Human Rights Tulip to Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Monday 3 September in The Hague.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Zeid,

In the long run, the constant trampling of human rights will lead to a build-up of pressure that, once released, could eradicate global stability.

This is a quote from one of my predecessors, Max van der Stoel, widely recognised as a great human rights diplomat. He said these words many years ago, in a very different geopolitical context.

But in our time, we are also seeing disturbing developments. Political support for human rights principles is clearly declining. We are seeing journalists being intimidated, threatened or even murdered. Human rights defenders beaten, kicked and verbally abused. We see that space for civil society and dissenting voices is shrinking, even here in Europe. We’ve seen countries spying on their own citizens and technological companies acting as enablers of repression.

What’s more, governments seem less and less inclined to listen to criticism, or to take civil suggestions to improve human rights into account. Quite the contrary. Often governments respond with defensiveness and aggression.

In fact, some governments consider themselves above the law. They are quick to dismiss human rights – universal rights – as some idle luxury, some esoteric fantasy, a Western invention. An indulgence.

Fewer and fewer people dare to speak out unconditionally and unequivocally for human rights.

Given these trends, it sometimes seems tempting to give up hope. To exercise the right to remain silent. To accept injustice.

There are, however, also rays of light. If we take the long view, we can see there’s been a lot of progress. The death penalty has been abolished in 142 countries.

In many places, you can marry the man or woman you love, whether or not that person happens to be of the same sex.

Human rights are by no means a Western invention, but they certainly are a human invention. And so they require people to defend, protect and develop them.

Courageous people, unafraid to speak truth to those in power. Audacious people from different countries, in different times. People from different walks of life, from different backgrounds and religions. But with one conviction in common: that freedom is fragile, and universal rights need protection. Take the lawyer who was reading a newspaper article about students living under an authoritarian regime. Students imprisoned just for making a toast to freedom. This inspired the lawyer, Peter Benenson, to write an article that led to the foundation of a major human rights movement: Amnesty International.

Or take the 17-year-old girl from Pakistan who fought for the right to education, for herself and her peers.

Or the fearless diplomat from the Middle East, who has kept speaking out, fairly and firmly, year after year, time after time.

Mr Zeid: throughout your tenure you have truly been a global voice for human rights. You worked for people, not for governments or states. Very much in the spirit of the UN Charter. Your independence and integrity made you the voice of reason in an era marked by autocratic and erratic leadership. You have been unequivocal and unambiguous in your defence of human rights and your criticism of chauvinistic nationalism. Your strong and principled speeches showed a fascination for substance, rather than an obsession with procedure.

And as you yourself said here in The Hague, almost exactly two years ago, you were elected by all governments, and you became a critic of almost all governments. You made no exceptions and showed no bias in your approach.

Your only focus was on defending those people whose rights were violated.   

That’s why it is our immense honour to award you the 2018 Human Rights Tulip. Launched exactly 10 years ago, it is presented to brave individuals for their work in dangerous situations in countries all over the world. Today we award this prize to you, as a human rights defender, champion and role model.

Your courage gave other people courage. To speak out. To continue their peaceful fight for a more just world.

Your principled stance has been an example for many. Not to be afraid. Not to despair. Not to give up hope.

Your tenacious drive for access made it clear to human rights defenders all over the world, no matter how remote, that they were not alone. That their voice was being heard and would not go unnoticed.

Mr Zeid, you have set the bar very high for your successor, Michelle Bachelet.

I’d like to congratulate her on her appointment and I wish her wisdom, perseverance and success in her new capacity.

Why are human rights so important to my government?

Time and again, Mr Zeid, you have stressed that human rights are ‘deeply practical’. And I firmly agree.

To me, human rights are an indispensable requirement for stability in a rules-based democratic order. Both nationally and internationally. Where human rights are respected, you have legal certainty. And economic prosperity, freedom of thought, creativity, and innovation. People thrive, and societies thrive. The opposite, unfortunately, is also true. Or, to put it in your own words: ‘When a state becomes hollow of principle, does it not provoke those who sense injustice?’  

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I’ve said, freedom is fragile, and universal rights need protection. To survive, they need brave individuals willing to defend them.

Journalists. Human rights defenders. Lawyers. Civil society. And yes, diplomats and government officials too. To defend human rights we should be open to criticism from organisations, institutions, other governments. And from individuals.

Of course, no individual, no country or no organization is perfect all the time on all scores. We live in the real world and not in La la land. Sometimes, criticism may be justified, sometimes, less so.

We should not be averse to criticism. We should continue to create an open and safe environment. Both for criticism from outside and from inside our organizations. Have sound procedures in place, and live up to them.

We endeavour to do this here at home, as well as internationally. At the UN and elsewhere.

We should not shy away from calling other countries to account when they fail to honour their commitments. Sometimes we do this publicly, sometimes in private. We must keep working together to find the best approach and build smart coalitions. Results do matter.

Within the EU, the Netherlands has led efforts to impose sanctions on the worst human rights violators. To freeze their assets and prohibit them from entering EU territory.

Because, after all, if we have a terrorist sanctions list, is it not logical that we should also have such a list for other human rights violators? We must not let them enjoy impunity.

So, we do not have the right to remain silent. We cannot give up. We cannot resign ourselves to reality. It is too easy to become jaded. The truth is, even authoritarian regimes are sensitive to criticism and susceptible to pressure.

On several occasions, we have seen that leverage and pressure produce results. Stopping an execution. Getting a political prisoner released. Demanding and obtaining access.

There has also been success in other fields. In 2017 same-sex marriage was legalised in three more countries (Germany, Australia and Malta). The international Shelter City network – a network of cities providing places for human rights defenders to catch their breath and work in safety – continues to grow.

The Netherlands will continue to work with the UN High Commissioner and other partners all over the world to pursue an active human rights agenda, for a safer, more stable and just world. Multilateral cooperation is a pillar of Dutch foreign policy. It is in our interest to protect the rulebook, and my government remains actively committed to that goal. We will also raise our human rights budget as well as our contribution to OHCHR.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world just lost a great former UN Secretary-General, a wise and formidable human rights diplomat. On human rights, Kofi Annan reflected:

‘Human rights are what reason requires and conscience commands. They are us and we are them. Human rights are rights that any person has as a human being.

We are all human beings; we are all deserving of human rights. One cannot be true without the other.’

We should all take this very seriously. The dignity of the individual should be our central concern. Rights need to be protected.

There is nothing Western or theoretical about this. It’s a matter of civilisation. Even though the great human rights project is facing difficult times, this is not a reason to give up hope. In fact, we have no right to give up hope. Human rights are fragile, and they need courageous people to defend them.

So I call on you all to follow Mr Zeid’s example: speak out for human rights. Unconditionally and unequivocally. Take action. And make sure we continue making progress.

Mr Zeid, may I now invite you to come forward to receive the award.

See also

Ministry responsible