Speech by Minister Stef Blok about human rights violations by the Syrian regime

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at the side event on ‘Accountability for human rights violations by the Syrian regime’ at the United Nations General Assembly, 23 September 2020

Ladies and gentlemen,

I greatly appreciate your taking part in this side event on ‘Accountability for human rights violations by the Syrian regime’.

I would like to thank all those who will be speaking today.

Especially Ahmad Helmi and Mariah Al Abdeh, who themselves survived the war in Syria and are now working with great dedication on behalf of other survivors and the relatives of victims.

I deeply respect their efforts.

‘The hardest thing was choosing who would live and who would die.’ That’s what Doctor Amani Ballour said about her time running an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta.

Earlier this year I spoke to her in person. Calmly she told me of the horrors she’d seen in the underground hospital. Of the bombings the city endured. Of children with terrible injuries, or suffering from malnutrition. And of the inhuman choices she’d had to make.

Here was a brave, unflinching woman who, besides sharing her memories, kept repeating the same words, firmly and resolutely: We need justice. Only then can Syria heal.

I’ve started repeating those words, too. I said them yesterday, I’m saying them today, and I will continue to say them.

Because justice for Syria is not optional. It’s a requirement. A must.

That’s why the Netherlands took the step last week to hold Syria’s government responsible for the crimes it has committed.

For decades the Assad regime has been perpetrating horrific crimes and gross violations of human rights. When the Syrian people launched a peaceful uprising almost a decade ago, the regime’s response was out of all proportion.

Since then, Syrians have been tortured and murdered on a massive scale. Those who fled the violence have lost everything.

Now we have a chance to take an important step towards justice. We can and must take that step. For the people of Syria. And for ourselves.

Because if crimes go unpunished, the injustice is doubled. We cannot afford to allow human rights to be optional. And, by the same token, we cannot afford a repeat of ‘never again’…

… with torture becoming a common government practice…

…and the universal ban on the use of chemical weapons being broken.

We don’t want to go down that slippery slope. Where valuable rules suddenly turn out to be worthless, because countries can simply flout them. Impunity destroys the foundations on which our rights rest. The rights of the people of Syria. Your rights, and mine. It sets the entire world back.

That’s precisely why the Netherlands is such a staunch supporter of accountability. And why the Netherlands announced last week its decision to hold Syria responsible under international law for gross violations of human rights, and torture in particular.

Of course, this won’t have an immediate effect on the dire situation many Syrians face right now. Or make up for the injustice they have suffered. I realise that.

Nevertheless, this is a very important step. In taking it, the international community is saying: a deal is a deal. Rules must be observed. We do not accept impunity.

We informed Syria of our decision last week. And we reminded the regime of its international obligations to cease the violations and offer victims full reparation. This would mean the regime not only recognising its mistakes, but also compensating victims for the harm inflicted on them. Victims must be released from torture prisons. Relatives need to know what happened to their loved ones. Compensation must be paid.

We have called on Syria to enter into negotiations. This is a necessary first step before the case can be brought before an international court.

Today I urge other countries to support our call. The evidence is on the table, thanks to the dauntless efforts of the many Syrian NGO staff who risked their lives to gather it. And after the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism’s careful work, it’s now time to take the next concrete step.

By holding Syria accountable. By supporting that step together. And by repeating that justice needs to be served.

Brave people like Ahmad Helmi and Mariah Al Abdeh deserve a brave international community at their side. The victims and survivors deserve it. The world deserves it. We deserve an international community that is committed to our universal rights. A community that does not accept impunity. A community that ensures that ‘never again’ means ‘never again’.

Thank you.