Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Stef Blok, at the opening of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 24 February 2020

Madam President, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

On the 11th of December three special guests came to my office in The Hague. To tell me their story.

These guests were 50-year-old Hamida, 46-year-old Yousuf, and 22-year-old Hasina.

Hasina told me how she was attacked by a soldier, and that ten of her relatives were murdered in 2017.

Ali showed me the scars on his legs, and told me how he had been tortured, and sexually assaulted, by police officers he knew.

And Hamida told me how her husband disappeared and never returned home, and that her mother and friends were all murdered.

‘Why?’ you may ask.

Well, because Hamida, Ali and Hasina are Rohingya refugees. One of the most discriminated peoples in the world.

They were in The Hague that week to attend a session of the International Court of Justice. As Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi had been called to explain her government’s position.

They came a long way by aeroplane. There they were. Wanting justice to be served. 71 years and a day after the world had promised ‘never again’.

And they left The Hague to go back to an overcrowded refugee camp, on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. In the hope that full justice will be done. One day.

But why am I telling you about my meeting with these brave Rohingya refugees? Or about their story, that has been nothing less than a nightmare?

Because my support goes to those who struggle to secure human rights, and uphold them.

Because the Kingdom of the Netherlands - like all states that adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - agreed that no state, no group, no individual human being has the authority to deny anyone these rights. Or take them away.

Because we all have the right to housing, food and medical care. We all have the right not to be subjected to torture. The right to a fair trial, and the right to say what we want.

These are human rights. They are minimum standards. They apply to everyone. Whoever you are. Whatever you do. Wherever you come from.

And that’s also the reason why I stand before you today. Because I believe this Council exists to make a difference to people’s lives.

Because it is here that the world community can engage in discussions with experts and governments, and speak out, and pass resolutions on global human rights issues.

It is here that we can examine complaints from victims of human rights violations. Or from activist organisations on behalf of those victims.

It is here that we can appoint independent experts, so they can investigate human rights violations in specific countries.

And it is here that we can assess the human rights records of all UN Member States every four and a half years, and where NGOs, news media and civil society organisations can publicise countries’ violations and urge reform.

And yes, of course, we all know that the Council does sometimes fall short of its potential.

After all, the Council can sometimes be unfair, and biased against some states. I am referring amongst others to Item 7 that singles out Israel. 

Just as some of its members are not living up to the universal standards of human rights themselves.

But no multilateral organisation is perfect, and we will work to improve the functioning and the legitimacy of the Human Rights Council. 

Because the Council is the UN’s leading human rights body. Established to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.

It is no surprise that we witness resistance to dealing with country situations. Precisely because the Council is effective! It takes concerns and legal analysis, and makes them political.

After all, in the past we have established international investigations into major violations worldwide. We have put the spotlight on those who violated or abused human rights, and in so doing have pressured governments and other actors to mend their ways.

And at the session in September last year, the Council adopted important resolutions on the situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, on South Sudanese fighters’ slaughter of civilians because of their ethnicity, on Syria’s targeting of hospitals and other civilian institutions, and on attacks on civilians and denial of humanitarian access in Yemen.

So yes, the Council may fall short at times. But it also achieves results.

Ladies and gentlemen, as an international community we have the means to assist people and governments, and to help prevent violations.

But we also have to respond to them, in a world where human rights are being violated in so many places. And where so many people know nothing but ruin, darkness, and pain.

That’s why the Netherlands pledged to fully cooperate with the Council. Why we try to convince candidates to present their programme, and to be open to questions about their record. Why we increased our annual contribution, and continue to strengthen our human rights situation at home.

Just as it the reason why we will host – and co-organise with UNESCO – World Press Freedom Day, in April this year. So we can underscore the need to better protect journalists.

Why we strive to advance gender equality. And enhance the Council’s capacity to promote and protect equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.

And why we recently hosted the 7th meeting of the Istanbul Process, supporting efforts to combat intolerance based on religion or belief, and fostering the implementation of the Council’s resolution 16/18.

Because the Kingdom of the Netherlands seeks to be a reliable partner.

We want to reach out. Both to you, and to our civil society partners.

And we want to respond. So we can indeed reform – and improve – this unique place from the inside.

And I hope all of you feel the same way too. That if we want to make effective changes that will make a difference to people’s lives we have to step up. Not step back.

We have to awaken the conscience of the world. And stir the voice of the international community.

In other words, we have to be here in this Council.

Thank you.