Speech by Minister Hoekstra at the Human Rights Tulip 2022 ceremony
Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra at the Human Rights Tulip 2022 ceremony in the Peace Palace, The Hague on 8 December 2022.
A few weeks ago, I stood at the Bridge of No Return.
Its design is quite ordinary. Its setting is not. The bridge crosses the Military Demarcation Line between North Korea and South Korea. Once used for prisoner exchanges, the bridge has a name that speaks volumes to passers-by, like me. Because it’s one of the rare locations in the world where you can clearly see the outcome of two very different paths. One with ‒ and one clearly without ‒ human rights.
A few minutes away from the bridge, along the demarcation line, there was a building that seemed deserted. But then, all of a sudden, a curtain opened, and someone looked at us. A person I will never meet.
His or her thoughts, his or her life, will always remain unknown to me.
And right there – plain as day – I saw that a path without human rights is indeed a bridge of no return. The question is not whether we should cross that bridge: I believe many of us, and certainly all of us here today will agree we should not. The big question is how we make sure that we prevent our world from moving in that direction. That’s something I’d like to discuss today. Because today’s nominees are an important part of the answer.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s truly an honour to be here today with you. The first edition of Human Rights Week. And the first time I have the tremendous privilege of presenting this beautiful tulip. A Dutch award recognising the truly outstanding accomplishments of human rights defenders. This certainly describes the work of our three nominees:
I’d also like to extend a special welcome to Olha Reshetylova, winner of the Embassy Tulip, who is here with us today.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While today’s occasion is cause to celebrate, the state of our world unfortunately is not. Protecting and promoting human rights has become increasingly difficult in a world that is clearly moving in the wrong direction.
This is a challenge we all face. It is a challenge we face as a ministry. It is a challenge I face personally, in my duties. In all honesty, I do feel we have to admit that the conventional approach to promoting human rights simply isn’t working well enough anymore. We have to admit that new ideas and new energy is needed if we’re to remain effective in this changing world.
Before I present this tulip to its rightful owner, I’d like to share some thoughts on this topic.
When explaining the Dutch strategy for promoting and defending human rights, former Dutch foreign minister Chris van der Klaauw said in 1980 that our goal should be ‘To make the world safe for human rights.’ It was a common mindset in those days. A mindset I grew up with. The idea that leaders can mould the world into a better, safer and more prosperous place.
As appealing as that may be, unfortunately history has also proven that this has worked only to a limited extent. The world is in many ways not safer than it was back then. And this is especially true for human rights.
Last year, 358 human rights defenders and 55 journalists died, because they were seeking justice, or writing about justice. Because they were making our world a better place. In 2021, 80 per cent of the world’s people lived in a country where fundamental freedoms and human rights are restricted.
And these troubling statistics don’t just reflect the state of human rights. Worldwide, democracy itself is losing ground and impunity is increasing. These developments are a reflection or the result of shifting power relations in a new world.
This is clearly visible on the battlefield in Ukraine. But also in many other places. In the plenary sessions of the UN, for example.
In the Human Rights Council, where the Netherlands couldn’t prevent the discontinuation of the investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. And where a small majority refused to discuss the UN report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang.
I find it truly baffling that there was actually applause as this report was rejected. It’s like applauding for a world with fewer rights, instead of more. And I wish that the choice was as obvious as the choice of paths on the bridge I mentioned earlier.
Because I can’t imagine people voluntarily choosing the path without human rights, and applauding themselves for doing it.
Bewilderment. Anger. Outrage.
What happened in the Human Rights Council and what’s happening in the rest of the world evoke strong emotions. And rightly so. And yet, such emotions by themselves do nothing to protect human rights and the rule of law. And they definitely can’t mould the world into a better place. We have to transform that into action.
I’m deeply aware of the value of human rights. Promoting human rights will always be a core interest in Dutch foreign policy. That’s precisely why I think it’s necessary to critically assess how together we can achieve the greatest effect. This means going much further than expressing a firm commitment to human rights, no matter how important that is as a first step. It's about, and it should be about, which efforts pay off the most. And unfortunately it’s about accepting the new reality and drawing conclusions. And how, together, we can be as effective as possible.
We have to conclude that autocratic countries are increasingly succeeding at undermining human rights. That persuasion on moral grounds, an approach that often worked in the past, is becoming less and less effective. And that we can no longer assume that countries which previously supported human rights will vote with us when it truly matters. As a result, Dutch and European influence in the world is shrinking, and countries committed to human rights are regularly subjected to reprisals.
And at the same time, the space for civil society is shrinking worldwide. Protests are being put down; the internet is being shut down; and journalists are sometimes being hunted down. All to stop powerful grassroots movements from growing.
The current geopolitical context calls for a new approach to human rights. Of course driven by the same goals and ideals, but at least some of the time with a somewhat different focus. A broader focus aimed at promoting both democracy and the international legal order. Because democratic countries are more inclined to embrace human rights. And to promote them within and outside their borders.
A new approach not just driven by our common outrage – and please be aware, it’s there for all of us, including for myself – but by the intention to achieve the best attainable results. On the one hand, by doubling down on our efforts to protect human rights, and the structures and the many people supporting them. And on the other, by strategising wisely. Looking at what and who works best, even if it goes against your instincts.
Take communication, for example. If a moral appeal makes sense, the Dutch government will always make it. But there’s no point in howling in protest like Pavlov’s dog every single time an incident occurs. It feels like the right thing to do. And it’s a logical response. But ultimately it does not always achieve what we seek. In fact, sometimes, you end up worse off than before. Often, other methods achieve more. Because finger wagging alone and in itself isn’t going to change the world.
For dialogue to work, all participants must be on an equal footing. Human rights are truly universal, so a one-way dialogue won’t cut it any more. Other countries are perfectly entitled to be critical of us. And we have to listen more to their concerns. Here, too, journalists are being threatened. Here, too, the government has to learn from its mistakes.
Equal dialogue also means paying more attention to the interests and position of other countries. And looking beyond our usual partners. Because the world is not as black and white as the military demarcation line dividing North and South Korea. And that’s why an all-or-nothing approach doesn't work, at least not all of the time. It doesn’t help anyone if the Netherlands stands alone. Only together can we deal with the worst aggressors and the worst violations. Because that’s where we can make a real difference. That’s how we can be truly effective.
More than 140 countries condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And as a result of widespread support, human rights violations and war crimes are now being investigated. That’s why it’s crucial to form more coalitions with other countries, even those that don’t always agree with us on all fronts.
The power of the international community is diminishing. Instead of complaining about it, we need to focus our attention on what is working. This includes you, as human rights defenders who really do bring real change. For example in Thailand, where the government has passed a bill criminalising torture and forced disappearance. In Kazakhstan, where the death penalty has been abolished. And in Mexico and in South Korea, where abortion has been decriminalised. The key enablers of these developments are human rights defenders.
Shifting our focus means that the Netherlands must provide even better support and protection to human rights defenders in their work. And it means that we must do everything we can to protect the international legal order and human rights infrastructure. That’s why the Netherlands will make an additional 40 million euros available to enhance the online and offline safety of human rights defenders and journalists around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me tell you something about tulips. The Dutch love them of course, and you can see them everywhere here, but the natural habitat of this flower ranges much further than the Netherlands. It stretches to Africa and Asia, from the Southwest of Siberia to the North of China. Tulips are cherished by people all over the world.
And the same is true for human rights. While autocratic regimes cling to the idea that human rights are not universal, but merely a Western invention, their people are demanding what is rightfully theirs. Their rights. Just look at Iran, where young girls and women, young boys and men are risking their lives to protest for the rights they are due. Just look at China, where protesters are demanding more freedom.
I think that’s where the great strength of this moment lies. With citizens, the media and human rights defenders. They are the key enablers of change right now. You are.
Don’t get me wrong – The last thing I want to do is to shift responsibility away from international leaders. They have to double down. The Netherlands has to double down. And will double down. My faith in you has implications for us and requires us to take action. The focus needs to change, but the goal remains the same: to stay on the right side of the bridge.
And now it’s time to award the Human Rights Tulip. Choosing a winner was especially difficult this year. All three nominees have contributed to our world in different but equally important ways. And in my view, all three are true heroes. They’ve all shown incredible boldness, resolve and zeal.
512 days and 16 hours.
That’s how long Viasna director Ales Bialiatski had been in prison when today’s ceremony started. Viasna’s website counts the minutes and seconds. It also provides many other details about political prisoners in Belarus.
Viasna is by far the most active and significant Belarusian human rights organisation. Its documentation on political prisoners in Belarus is invaluable. While the authorities try to conceal the truth, Viasna ensures that the truth is out in the open. And stays there.
Anyone can access its detailed register of all political prisoners in the country. Anyone can see the street art illustrating their plight. Anyone can attend Viasna’s meetings, online and off. So the world doesn’t forget. And the Belarusian regime knows.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights
That’s the number of individuals who’ve received legal assistance from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights since the military coup in 2014.
The organisation, founded just two days after the coup, has been at the forefront of defending and protecting human rights defenders ever since. Offering legal support in court and, like Viasna, documenting violations in painstaking detail.
The Human Rights Tulip is awarded for boldness, resolve and zeal. It might seem difficult to measure these qualities in numbers, but in the case of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights it isn’t: 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. The organisation has a hotline that enables human rights defenders to reach a lawyer at any time of the day or night.
Its reach can be measured too: it spans the entire globe. Both now and in the future. Now, because the organisation is one of the first places that media and NGOs go to for information. And in the future, because its lawyers, as collectors of historical evidence, are recording and preserving the powerful narratives of prisoners for posterity.
That’s how much forest Leng Ouch has saved from destruction. Initially, he worked entirely on his own. By working undercover, he exposed how timber magnates and corrupt government officials are stripping the mighty Prey Lang forest that’s so dear to him and many others. And so important for the entire world.
Every day, some 300 truckloads of timber are transported from Cambodia into Vietnam.
His work drove the country’s biggest timber magnate out of business. And resulted in the cancellation of dozens of land concessions. He protects the rights of indigenous communities ‒ not least their right to be protected against illegal deforestation.
Yet his mission comes with enormous risks. Leng Ouch is well aware of that. He lost his best friend and colleague, who was murdered by thugs. He is risking his own life too. Yet he knows he must go on. ‘I have to take risks to make change,’ he said. I find that truly inspiring. Boldness, resolve and zeal… from just one man.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my great pleasure to announce the winner of the Human Rights Tulip. According to the jury report, the winner does incredibly courageous work in a dangerous context. Prominent members of the organisation have been arrested. Their families are at risk. Yet the winner continues to stand at the frontline in a country that must not be forgotten.
The winner’s name means Spring. And I think that’s very fitting. Because that’s when the Dutch tulip fields turn into a sea of colour. Millions of tulips. Bringing hope of a brighter future.
This year’s winner is Viasna!