Speech by foreign minister Stef Blok on the occasion of the presentation of the Human Rights Tulip
Speech by Stef Blok, Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the occasion of the presentation of the Human Rights Tulip on 10 December 2020.
An indigenous feminist from Guatemala, a doctor from Sudan and a transgender woman from Armenia.
Three very different people, but they have one thing in common: they’ve all suffered in a way that made them stronger.
And they are all aware of what others have to go through.
That’s why they are now fighting for human dignity. For equality.
In other words: for the fundamental rights of others.
This is why all three of them have been nominated for the annual Human Rights Tulip.
An award presented by the Dutch government, to people who promote and support human rights, in peaceful and innovative ways.
This is the second time I’ve had the honour of presenting this award, and I do so with pride.
But before I announce the winner of this year’s Tulip, I would like to tell you all a bit more about these three incredible human beings, who have joined us digitally today.
These three people deserve the utmost respect for what they have done, and for what they are continuing to do.
First of all, Lorena Cabnal, the indigenous feminist, who grew up during the darkest years of the Guatemalan civil war.
From a very young age Lorena experienced sexual violence, at the hands of her father.
And she was not the only one in her community.
As you have said yourself, Lorena, many girls who grow up in indigenous communities think that it is normal to be taken against their will. When they are 12 or 13 years old.
That it is normal, to be any man’s woman;
To have five children or more by the time you’re 25;
To have men treat you like dirt if they don’t like living with you;
And probably never to have access to education, because your family expects you to cook, and to work harvesting coffee on the farm.
Work, by the way, you will never get paid for.
That is the life many girls you know are living.
And the reason why one of your female friends once asked you:
‘Lorena, you know how children have rights.
Do you think that women have rights as well?’
You had to think about that question, Lorena.
And from that moment on, you later said, an awareness of gender started to dawn for you.
An awareness of being a woman.
Because you thought:
“Why is it, that my indigenous government, the Xinka indigenous government, is made up of 357 men? And no women?’
‘Why do only men work as spiritual guides. Why are they the ones who conduct the great ceremonies? And are women on the sidelines.’
‘Why are women in my community the most impoverished?’
‘And why, when indigenous people so often speak of peace, and love, do so many commit sexual violence?’
It was then you decided that something needed to be done.
And the rest, I can now say, is history.
Because from that moment on, Lorena, you started to secretly organise meetings with other women.
Together you made a list of all the urgent needs that women had in your community.
Like food for children. Food for themselves. And ways of preventing teenage pregnancies and maternal deaths.
The next step was knocking on doors, and writing a lot of letters, to ask organisations to help you.
Which ultimately resulted in the birth of the Association for Indigenous Women of Santa Maria Xalapan, in 2004.
And now, Lorena, 16 years later, you are part of the network of ancestral healers, you’ve established three schools for political education - each attended by around 30 women each year.
You’ve taught more than hundred indigenous women how to read, how to write, how to use contraception, and how to avoid forced pregnancies.
In other words, you taught women how to change their lives.
And equally important: how to heal.
At the same time you’ve been busy bringing accusations against sexual offenders and leaders of trafficking networks, so that justice can be done, and women can live truly safe lives.
As in the case of a poor indigenous girl – only 16 years old – who was offered work by someone.
Together with her seven-month-old baby, she went to his house.
Where she was kidnapped, drugged and sexually abused, by men linked to organised drug trade.
They held her captive for three months, and gave her baby up for legal adoption.
It was thanks to you, Lorena, that this poor young girl was rescued.
She even got her baby back.
The man responsible for the kidnapping was later put in prison.
But it was a long, hard and dangerous process.
A process that made you fear for your own life, too.
But the dangers didn’t scare you, Lorena.
You kept on fighting for the rights of women and girls.
Even though you were exiled from your community, and even though you and your eleven year old daughter now have to live far away from the place where you grew up.
Still you continue your battle.
So that one day, all people can live freely and in dignity.
And for that you deserve our utmost respect.
I want you to know, Lorena, that equal rights for women and girls is a key part of Dutch human rights policy.
And we will do everything we can to continue improving the position of women and girls, worldwide.
Not only because gender equality is crucial for ending violence and building sustainable peace, but also because women’s rights are human rights.
Thank you Lorena.
Another brave human being, and the second nominee for the Human Rights Tulip Award, is Mohamed Nagi Alassam.
Mohamed, like millions of other Sudanese people you grew up desperate, hopeless, and disappointed in how your country had turned out, under the 30-year dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir’s Islamist regime.
Your people experienced endless internal wars. Famine. And state brutality.
Which costs millions of your fellow citizens their lives.
Seven years ago, Mohamed, in May 2013, you experienced the repression of Al-Bashir’s regime personally and directly for the first time.
You were a student at university.
And together with other students, you aimed to take part in student union elections, as part of an opposition alliance which was competing against the pro-regime student alliance.
When the candidate lists were about to be presented, armed forces stormed your campus with vehicles, weapons and soldiers.
You saw fellow students from the pro-regime student alliance with Kalashnikovs.
And before you knew it, they were firing many rounds over your head, and all around you.
You saw other students crying.
It was, as you later said, the most frightening moment of your life.
And you will never forget this moment for another reason, too: the strong feeling of injustice.
That day, you learned that the regime’s only response was violence.
This was confirmed a few months later, when armed forces opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing more than 200 people.
Among them Abubaker Abdelaziem.
A young man, just 23 years old.
You remembered him, Mohamed, because this young man stood there peacefully, raising his empty hands in front of the security forces, embodying the words that he had just written:
‘Oh my friend, we are tired,’ he had written.
‘But we cannot lie down during the battle.’
As this young man stood there, government forces shot him.
And although he died, he did not lie down during the battle.
He courageously gave his life for the collective cause:
A free and democratic Sudan.
This young man’s death, Mohamed, had a deep impact on you.
Soon after, you joined the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors.
And within the same year, together with other Committee members, you managed to hold the biggest doctors’ strike in decades.
An event that would break the barrier of fear among doctors, as well as other professionals in Sudan.
From lawyers and engineers to journalists, university professors and teachers.
They felt encouraged by the strike you helped organise.
And this common inspiration led to a huge increase in the activity of different professional bodies.
You seized on that momentum, Mohamed.
And you and your colleagues brought all these unions together under one banner.
The Sudanese Professionals Association was born.
A body that soon adopted a political agenda.
An agenda that called for civilian rule, women’s empowerment, and an end to the nation’s civil wars.
A body that was trusted by the people.
But apparently not by the regime.
Because within three days of the agenda’s announcement, you were arrested and detained by security forces.
98 days you spent in prison, during which you were questioned constantly about the newly formed umbrella association and its members.
What you didn’t know, was that while you were in prison, an uprising had begun, which would last for eight months.
Millions of Sudanese people, young and old, men and women, formed local independent resistance committees.
Showing the regime that their will could not be broken.
And thanks to the leadership of your umbrella organisation, Mohamed, they won.
The people won.
Allow me therefore, to thank you.
For your strength. For your perseverance. And for your belief in democracy.
Because everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions that protect their interests.
That’s why the Netherlands will continue to fully support human right defenders who defend this fundamental right.
So that people like you can continue – and expand – your work.
At the same time, we should make sure that we have effective instruments to target human rights abusers.
That’s why I’m very pleased that – as of this Monday – we have a global EU human rights sanctions regime, adopted by the EU member states.
The Netherlands has been calling for such a regime to be established for more than two years. And now our efforts have borne fruit.
This means we now have the ability to impose sanctions on human rights violators, no matter where they are active.
We can deny them access not only to EU territory, but also to financial assets in the EU.
This will prevent them from doing business here. Or shopping in the glitzy stores of Paris or Budapest.
Above all, they will be outed before the eyes of the world as violators of human rights. This is not a label anyone wants.
In short, with this new EU sanctions regime we can show that the EU has teeth. And human rights abusers will feel our bite.
But that’s not the reason we’re here today.
We’re here today to talk about the Dutch Human Rights Tulip.
So allow me to move on to the third nominee:
Lilit Martirosyan from Armenia, who has also joined us digitally.
Lilit, you had a very difficult childhood.
You were assigned male at birth.
But you identified as a girl.
Every time you wore your mother’s clothing – when you were eight or nine years old – your father was upset, and ashamed.
‘What will the neighbours say?’, he would shout at you.
Later, at the age of 14, you had to leave the village where you lived, because you no longer felt safe.
Many LGBTI people in your country, after all, live in the shadows.
Afraid of being ridiculed, discriminated against, attacked, or even killed.
It is also why you became a sex worker in a big city.
Because you knew that people like you, are often deprived of an education, and therefore unable to find employment and make a living.
But the life of a sex worker was not the life you envisioned for yourself.
You wanted to stand up for your rights, and help others.
That’s why you were not only the first person in Armenia to register as a transgender woman, but also the founder of the Right Side Human Rights Defender NGO, in 2016.
An NGO run by – and for – transgender people and sex workers in Armenia and the rest of the South Caucasus.
This can’t have been easy.
Because it led to your receiving a lot of death threats.
In April 2019, for example, when you were the first member of Armenia’s LGBTI community to address the National Assembly.
You spoke out bravely against discrimination against transgender people.
Many people condemned your speech.
Including the chairperson of the parliamentary session.
Who told a Radio Free Europe reporter that, and I quote, ‘perverts must be expelled from Armenia’.
‘Send them to Holland’, he said.
Adding: ‘We want females to be females, and males to be males. You cannot mix female with male. It’s shameful,’ he concluded.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Lilit, people phoned your mother and your brother, threatening to kill you.
To burn you alive.
Your family was forced to flee.
And how must you have felt the night right after you gave your speech, when you ordered food to be delivered to your apartment.
Not long after the delivery guy rang your bell and gave you your food, he posted a public message on Facebook with your address, to help the people who wanted to kill you.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to experience such hatred, and to live in constant fear.
Nobody deserves that.
So I would like to thank you as well, Lilit, for your strength, and your determination.
Because thanks to your peaceful actions, LGBTI people and sex workers in Armenia now have a community centre, which has become a home, and a safe space for them.
They can get legal and mental health support. They have access to English courses, and other education; And transgender people can change the name in their passport.
From male to female. Or from female to male. Without undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
On top of that, Lilit, you organise summer camps for the parents of transgender people.
Allowing them, for the first time in their lives, to talk openly about the problems they face.
And more importantly, to begin to realise that they cannot change their children, and that their children did not choose this life.
But that it is … who they are.
Lorena Cabnal put this into words beautifully when she said:
‘There are no two equal stones, two equal rivers or two equal mountains.’
‘Even two trees that bear fruit are not identical.’
‘In the same way, bodies are not the same either. Or different ways of living in community.’
‘Men, women, transgenders, transvestites, lesbians, gays, non-binary people…’
‘It doesn’t matter what you are.’
‘What matters is the plurality of life.’
I couldn’t agree more.
Which makes me a feminist as well. And a pluralist.
So thank you, Lilit, for not only living your life, but advocating for those who cannot live as openly, and challenging your country’s cultural and political institutions.
Especially in these difficult times. Among other reasons, because transgender people are now being accused of evading military service.
Lilit, I want you to know, that the Netherlands will continue to support human rights defenders, who promote equal rights for LGBTI people around the world, because everyone should have the right to be themselves.
Unfortunately, I can only present the Dutch Human Rights Tulip to one of you.
To only one of these three amazing human rights defenders I have spoken about.
Needless to say, all three of you are role models.
All three of you have shown us what hope really means.
How people can empower themselves in the most horrible situations.
All three of you have stood up for the rights of others.
And have struggled to build better societies.
With more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.
And all three of you continue to work to advance human rights and democracy.
Peacefully, around the world.
And so all three of you deserve our support.
But as I said, only one candidate can be the winner.
And that candidate, the winner of the Dutch annual Human Rights Tulip award is …
Lilit, you never gave up on the nonviolent pathway to change.
Even when you received death threats.
Time after time, you rose up, holding onto that spark of hope.
And stood your ground.
For all those transgender people in your country.
For all those fellow human beings struggling to survive.
That is why, I hope that this prize, the Dutch Human Rights Tulip Award, can somehow help you as you continue your struggle.
We in the Netherlands support you, Lilit.
Just as we support Mohamed and Lorena.
Because, even though we still have our own struggles here in the Netherlands, when it comes to human rights, we know that human rights are for everyone.
No matter who you are.
No matter where you are from.
No matter how much money you have.
Or, as Judge Edwin Cameron so eloquently said in his Jonathan Mann Lecture, four years ago:
‘We do not ask for tolerance, or even acceptance.
We claim what is rightfully ours.
That is our right to be ourselves, in dignity and equality, with other human beings.’
Thank you Lilit. Thank you Mohamed. Thank you Lorena.
I wish you all the best of luck.