Closing remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at a meeting on the EU Global Human Rights Sanction Regime

On the 10th of December this year, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

‘This Declaration,’ said Eleanor Roosevelt at the vote in the UN, ‘may well become the international Magna Carta, for all men, everywhere’.

Today, in 2018, the Declaration is one of our key touchstones in the area of human rights. Our foundational document, setting out rights that are still as valid as ever.

In the intervening decades, we’ve seen a lot of progress.

An extensive range of human rights conventions have been developed on the basis of the Declaration.

And yet… ‘For all men, everywhere’? We haven’t achieved that yet.

In fact, when it comes to human rights, today’s world shows an alarming trend. The upward trend that lasted for decades is now going downhill. Worldwide, human rights are increasingly under pressure. Authoritarian regimes are tightening their grip. Reports of sexual violence against women and girls in conflicts paint a disturbing picture. There is shrinking space for civil liberties, and the universality of human rights is being questioned – sometimes quite aggressively.

And unfortunately, too often the guilty parties simply get away with it.

Eleanor Roosevelt was an idealistic, but also a realistic, woman. She understood that the Universal Declaration was not the final destination, but only the start of the journey. She understood that every new generation, in its own way, would have to fight to make human rights a reality. In Europe, in the Western world and also – perhaps especially – in the rest of the world.

She understood also what would be needed, above all, in that struggle: courageous individuals.

‘Freedom,’ she said, ‘makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.’

I consider myself lucky that we’ve managed to bring together such a group of courageous individuals here in The Hague today. People from European and Western countries who are not afraid. Who are willing to take responsibility. People from countries where human rights are firmly rooted in law, whether at European or national level. People who also realise that this alone is not enough. Who work all over the world to foster human rights for others, elsewhere. Who know that it’s crucial, as Eleanor Roosevelt told us, to keep asking ourselves how we can continue strengthening the human rights system.

‘Rules are rules’, as the (Dutch) saying goes. But only if breaking the rules has consequences.

That’s true in the school playground, and it’s true in the arena of international law.

That’s why the Netherlands, as a champion of international law, always works to stress the importance of accountability. After all, a norm can only stand if violators of that norm are punished.

Of course, this is why we have international criminal law. And why international criminal courts and tribunals are so important. But around the world, people are still falling victim to human rights violations on a daily basis.

Human rights, which lie at the core of Europe, require a multifaceted approach.

And we see human rights sanctions as a necessary additional instrument.

To supplement the criminal law. But also to supplement the geographical and theme-based sanctions that already exist. Honesty dictates that we acknowledge that geographical sanctions are sometimes too blunt an instrument to be used in practice. They may be too political. And they may not always feasible. We may not like it, but that’s what experience has taught us.

And an instrument you can’t always use at the very least needs to be supplemented with something.

We’re convinced that a global human rights sanctions regime could be that ‘something’.

A global regime would allow us to combat human rights violations around the world even in difficult, politically sensitive situations.

Take the militia leaders who recruit children as young as eight. The government officials who abuse their position in order to rape women. The prison officers who systematically torture LGBTI people or minorities.

We in the EU can ensure that these criminals suffer the consequences of their actions. That they can no longer travel freely in or out of the Union’s territory, indulge in a care-free shopping trip to Budapest, Rome or Amsterdam, or visit top doctors in Paris.

The global human rights sanctions regime will make life a lot more difficult for them.

The best way to achieve this is at European level.

Together, we are the world’s largest economic bloc, and its largest financial market. Together, we can make an impact much bigger than the sum of our parts. Together, we can not only increase our effectiveness, but also stand up to opposition.

I’m delighted that you have taken the time today to contribute your ideas.

I understand you’ve discussed some important issues:

  • What categories of violation should be covered by the regime?
  • How can we address sexual violence against women and girls within the framework?
  • How can we include the use of hunger as a weapon of war as one of the criteria?
  • What’s the best way to structure the process so that it has the strongest possible legal footing?
  • Is there a role for an independent committee – a suggestion by the European Stability Initiative?

Today we’ve developed the beginnings of an agenda of points we need to resolve in order to ensure this plan will really work.

And in the weeks ahead we’re keen to work with you on moving forward.

We need to be thorough. But we also need to work quickly.

Because with every day that’s lost, we allow the norms laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be eroded a little more.

And no one here wants that on their conscience.

So we trust that this meeting provides a basis for more formal discussions in December in Brussels.

So let me conclude by quoting the great Eleanor Roosevelt one last time:

‘Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticised anyway.’

Thank you.