Speech 75th anniversary of the United Nations

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok at the Peace Palace on 24 October 2020 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

Judge Yusuf,

Mayor Van Zanen,

And everyone else watching and listening today. It’s a pleasure to be speaking to you on this special occasion.    

"Just as powerful and grand as the idea of world peace itself ..."

‘Tout aussi puissant et grandiose que l’idée même de paix mondiale.’

This is how a Dutch writer once described the Peace Palace.

For me there is no better place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations ...

… Not only because this is a palace for peace, but also because it feels like a temple of justice.

With signs in Latin that exude moral authority.

Cedant arma togae – let arms yield to the toga.

Authority that you eagerly accept as a visitor.

And it’s authority that the UN needs if it wants to be successful in the next 75 years.

For me, rules, law and moral authority are key ingredients in today’s commemoration.

And not only for me, but also for many young people, according to the UN survey carried out for today’s dialogue.

We, the international community, must take responsibility.

When it comes to climate change. To grinding poverty. To abuse of power.

And because we aren’t taking responsibility, we lack moral authority.

For many, the UN is not a beautiful palace, but an abstract and sometimes stuffy organisation.

An organisation you have little influence over.

That’s why I applaud the UN’s global dialogue, and also the tremendous participation of young people, like you here today.

I’d like to share a small piece of history that concerns personal influence.

A piece of history that shows how you can leave your mark on the international community and international law. Not only for your own generation, but also for subsequent ones.

‘Ah, you mean Hugo Grotius,’ some may think.

With his plea for the freedom of the seas and free trade — Mare Liberum — this Dutchman was one of the founders of public international law.

But I’m actually talking about someone else. Someone who also fought for justice … and especially against torture.

This is what he once said:

‘Torture, deliberately inflicting pain and injury on a defenceless victim, happened routinely. [Often] with electric current, which is handy and clean … The field telephone could be used for that.'

Perhaps these words sound familiar.

They may remind you of news  you've heard recently.

Of opponents of the Assad regime being tortured to death, for example…

Of the internment camps that China continues to build for Uyghurs…

Or of the masked gangs who beat defenceless protesters in Belarus…

Or maybe these words remind you of recent reports of police brutality. The injustice done to George Floyd and others.

These examples probably spark in you a sense of injustice. A sense of outrage.

Of course, the reference to a field telephone makes it clear that we’re dealing with a different era.

I was quoting the Dutchman Herman Burgers.

In 1947 he was sent to Indonesia, where he went to work for the Court Martial. There he heard about unacceptable practices.

One of these concerned the torturing of prisoners to obtain intelligence.

This left an indelible impression on him.

In his own words,

‘I have a deep abhorrence of torture which will always remain with me.’

Burgers’ sense of injustice spurred him on to great achievements that have benefited our world.

From 1982 to 1984 he headed the United Nations Working Group that drafted the International Convention against Torture.

Syria ratified the treaty in 2004, when Bashar al-Assad was already president.

In doing so, the Syrian regime made an explicit commitment to prevent and combat torture and other cruel treatment or punishment.

These promises have been systematically broken.

It was therefore with reference to this treaty that on 18 September the Netherlands announced to hold Syria responsible for serious violations of its obligations under international law.

I’m telling you the story of Herman Burgers because it shows us something valuable.

About the strength of one person. And about the potential of one organisation. The UN. Which is actually the potential we all have.

The story also tells us how outrage at injustice can lead to more justice. And how the UN can make that possible. In fact, how we can all make that possible. In theory, at least. Because often the international community does not act quickly and firmly enough.

I am also telling you this story because it shows us the direction we need to be heading.

Not just when it comes to stopping torture.

Not just when it comes to human rights and democracy.

Not just when it comes to international justice.

But also when it comes to how countries need to work together in the broadest sense.

How we should jointly strive for a more just, prosperous and peaceful world.

And how we should strengthen the systems we built together after the Second World War to protect our rights, prosperity and security ...

That includes the UN, of course.

But also NATO and the EU.

Ambitious projects born out of a conviction that we need to solve problems together ...

… And to protect the values ​​we stand for.

Organisations that have reached a certain age ... but without gaining the respect that comes with it.

You will hear the most complex analyses on why international cooperation is in dire straits, but the bottom line is that the world will only move forward if we honour our agreements.

International cooperation starts with international commitment.

And it’s precisely for this reason that the Netherlands is holding Syria to account.

The Netherlands is taking this step above all for the sake of the Syrian population. But we’re also doing it for the international community.

Because we want to combat impunity all over the world.

And because if crimes go unpunished, the injustice is doubled.

If we turn a blind eye to what we say we cannot tolerate, we undermine the power and credibility of the international organisations that strive to uphold the agreements we’ve made.

And as I say, this is a double setback for the world.

We are making rules and agreements that we do not uphold.

Just look around you.

Trade is less fair. A direct result of a weakened World Trade Organization.

The world is less safe. A direct consequence of the cancellation of agreements on disarmament.

And that threatens the biggest achievement of an organisation like the UN.

The prevention of a version of history we don't want to see.

This is where you will find its true success.

The absence of a Third World War.

The cold war that has always remained cold.

But consider too all the landmines that have not exploded, thanks to the treaty against landmines.

And there have been more successes. Together, we closed the hole in the ozone layer. Polio has been virtually eradicated. And smallpox has completely disappeared.

All of this is at risk if we continue to be nonchalant about the rules, taking a ‘you could, but you don’t have to’ approach.

So this is my message today: 

Let us work to ensure our international cooperation has teeth.

That means a deal is a deal. If you sign a treaty, you stick to it.

It means taking responsibility.

For example when it comes to respecting EU rules: on the rule of law; on healthy budgets and competitive economies...

Or when it comes to the World Trade Organization: if you join it, you must open up your markets.

And it also means taking a critical look at yourself.

For example, the Netherlands needs to step up its efforts to reach NATO’s two per cent threshold on defence spending.

Finally, it also means strengthening and renewing structures.

Developing a new system of arms control agreements, for example.

Ensuring we have a workable WTO dispute settlement system to tackle unfair trade practices.

And  a World Health Organization that functions transparently and effectively.

Faltering structures, and an international community that is slow to act, must not get in the way of the people who can make a true difference.

Today's generation of people like Hugo de Groot and Herman Burgers.

People like you.

Young people must be able to participate at the UN. I feel strongly about that.

Not only because today’s problems are your problems … but also because you can solve those problems. 

My appeal to you today is: Please don’t be discouraged.

Join the conversation. Not just today, but also tomorrow.

Make your voice heard.

Take a fresh look at world problems…

…and at an organisation that, while it may appear stuffy, has a value surpassing that of all palaces.

Thank you.