Human Rights Lecture by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok: Human Rights Affect Everyone

The Case for a Pragmatic Human Rights Policy

Human Rights Lecture by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, on International Human Rights Day, Leiden University, 10 December 2019

‘On 24 May 1945 – my ninth birthday – my mother woke me in the middle of the night with my birthday present. My siblings weren’t allowed to know. She gave me a tomato, which she had no doubt stolen from the camp kitchen. She wouldn’t even take a bite. It was all for me.’

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is a glimpse into the experiences of a child in a Japanese detention camp during the Second World War. A child locked up with his mother and his younger brother and sister. A child who was hungry, who’d seen people shot, and who’d never been to school.

That child was my father. He later described this memory in a book he wrote for his children and grandchildren. So they would never forget. And we won’t forget. Not ever. The memories he describes are too intense to forget. Their impact too great. They make clear that human rights affect everyone.

In his book my father also describes the moment when his mother – my grandmother – heard that her husband was seriously ill at another camp. But at the time it was too dangerous to go and visit him, because of the violence sweeping Indonesia, the Bersiap. And even if it had been possible, she didn’t dare leave her three young children alone in the camp.

It must have been an awful dilemma for her. My father then describes how, when he was nine, he watched his mother open a telegram and burst into tears. ‘Is Papa dead?’ he asked, and his mother only nodded. At which point he too started to cry.


And my father’s harrowing experiences in the war explain why, from a very young age, I was told not only that I should work hard and always finish what was on my plate, but also that I should be grateful.

Grateful to the many thousands of soldiers who had risked their lives for the freedom of the Dutch and European people. Grateful to all the courageous members of the resistance. People like Ben Telders and Rudolph Cleveringa, who 79 years ago in this very auditorium furiously protested against the impending dismissal of his Jewish colleague.

Or like my great uncle, Bram Blok, who was arrested during the War for sheltering Jews, and later died in Neuengamme concentration camp. Thanks to him, and countless others like him, we now live in a country where everyone is free to say what they think and walk the streets in safety. Where almost everyone is assured of an income and a pension. And where our children and grandchildren can go to school and grow up without living in fear.

In fact, we now live in a country where a woman can rise to the top of a company. Where people can marry whomever they choose. Where a man can identify as a woman and a woman as a man. That is freedom. The foundation of what, for me, human rights are all about.


And that brings me to this special day, and the reason we are all here. Today is the 71st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The day when that foundation of our freedom was laid.

The Declaration states, for example, that we all have the right to housing, food and medical care. But also the right not to be subjected to torture. The right to a fair trial. And to say what we wish. These are human rights. They are minimum standards. Accepted by almost every country in every corner of the globe.

And so, these rights also serve as a yardstick for how we coexist. For a human life. A life of dignity. Because human rights are for everyone: from the boy in Bangladesh who works for ten hours in a garment factory for less than €3 a day to the girl in Guinea refusing to submit to genital mutilation. From the critical journalist in Turkey to the baby down the street who opens her eyes for the very first time. Human rights are for everyone. Whoever you are. Whatever you do. Wherever you come from.

Article 1 of the Declaration explains this in a nutshell: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ This means that human rights are not merely a standard for an ordered world, or a moral appeal. They are the very oxygen of humanity.

And what kind of life do we have without oxygen? Just try to stop breathing for two minutes and you’ll soon find out. You start to feel like you’re suffocating. Then you start to panic; you feel like the end is near. Suddenly nothing else seems important any more. Your only task now is to survive. To get free and take a breath. So you can get the oxygen flowing back into your brain and function normally. In short, so you can be yourself again.

Human rights are no different. Human rights are like oxygen. They give us freedom. They give us justice. They give us dignity. These are wonderful achievements, and to us in the Netherlands they are generally the norm. But unfortunately they are still very much not the norm. In many places all over the world people still live in fear. People are fleeing. People are disappearing. There is still hate. There is still war.


In fact, according to authoritative sources, we’re actually seeing a downward trend – one that’s been visible for years. This year, for example, Freedom House concluded that freedom and democracy are under pressure worldwide for the 13th year in a row. This think tank found that only half of all the world’s countries can be called ‘free’, while a third are ‘partly free’.

And according to the even stricter assessment of the Economic Intelligence Unit – the sister organisation of the influential magazine The Economist – only 4.5 per cent of the total world population lives in a ‘full democracy’. Four and a half per cent... While another 43.2 per cent live in ‘flawed democracies’.

Add to this the fact that the total gross national product of the world’s free countries is declining compared with that of non-free countries, and we can conclude that the wave of democratisation seems to have broken on unfree coastlines. Illiberal democracies, by contrast, have the wind at their back.

So what are the consequences?  We read about them every day in the paper. Or we see them on the news. Or we hear about them on social media. In the past year, for example, around the world, 331 transgender or gender-diverse people were murdered. In 2017 a record number of journalists were murdered. Not to mention the many journalists all over the world who face threats, and fear for their lives, because of their articles, radio broadcasts or vlogs.

And then of course there are all the people who in recent years have been killed or imprisoned because of their political views. Like the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015. All the people whose protests have been brutally crushed, such as in Sudan this year. All the young people recruited as child soldiers. The people persecuted for their faith, like the Yezidi in Iraq during the ISIS terror. Or for their lack of faith, like Ahmad al-Sharmi, who was sentenced to death for his atheism by a Saudi court.

People locked away in ‘re-education camps’, like the Uighurs in China. People stoned to death in football stadiums or elsewhere, such as women accused of adultery by the Taliban in Afghanistan. People doused with acid and disfigured for life, in places like Pakistan. Even people who are beaten and left for dead in the street because of their sexual orientation. Like the 16-year-old boy in Iraq who was filmed calling for his mother as he lay bleeding in the street.

There are still 168 million children who are effectively slaves. Forced to work in mines, brothels and sweatshops. And there are millions of people who’ve been kidnapped in recent years. Parcelled out, sold, or even raffled off.

One of them was Nadia Murad, a courageous and defiant Yezidi woman whom I met in New York in September and with whom I discussed the importance of prosecuting the perpetrators of these crimes. Because, for me, one thing is clear: without prosecution there can be no justice.


And for that reason – not to mention all the examples I’ve given – we must work to promote those human rights. Not only because we’ve made certain commitments: to the Declaration, to human rights and the yardstick by which human lives and society are measured. But also because respect for human rights leads to more development elsewhere, and to greater stability in our own surroundings.

Consider, for example, the many international rankings that are published each year. The World Happiness Index, the Ease of Doing Business Index, the Transparency International Index, the World Governance Indicators. They all show that the countries that score poorly on human rights often score poorly on other rankings, too. Or maybe I should turn it around: countries with less than stellar governance records also score poorly on human rights.

This means there’s a link between how countries deal with human rights and how they deal with other forms of governance. Countries that respect human rights are also almost always stable partners in the international political arena. After all, playing by the rules at home is the best guarantee that a country will play by the rules at international level, too.

And countries with a good score on human rights don’t start wars. They’re also quicker to engage in regional cooperation. And of course the reverse is also true: countries with a poor record on human rights are more often aggressive and untrustworthy. So human rights policy is essential even if only because it makes the global situation less dangerous.

But there are many more reasons besides. By the year 2100 – in 80 years’ time – there will be around 3.3 billion more people on the planet. Mostly living in countries that already find it hard to make ends meet. This is a potential source of new conflicts.

And we also know that problems like civil war, terrorism and extreme poverty are inextricably linked to human rights. Because people who have nothing, and no prospect of improving their lot, are more susceptible to extremist movements that seek to stoke instability in their own region, which in turn has an impact on Europe.

It’s no accident that, even back in 2004, the UN High-level Panel Report on Threats, Challenges and Change noted that terrorism ‘flourishes in environments of despair, humiliation, poverty, political oppression, extremism and human rights abuse’. People who have nothing to lose are more willing to take risks.

And here too, the reverse is also true. When people are able to live in dignity and to engage in commerce, conflict is generally absent. Because then people do have something to lose. So for a country like the Netherlands human rights are not simply a goal in themselves. They also serve as a safeguard. Because they keep us secure. They keep the countries around us stable, and as a result they generate more trade, jobs and economic growth.

In short, human rights help guarantee a world that provides a decent living environment for others, and thus for ourselves too.


That’s why it’s so vital to take action on human rights. And above all, to set priorities, as the Dutch government has done. Because the quality of human rights policy is determined by its effectiveness. This is why we’re already taking specific steps so that we can be truly effective.

It’s a bit like the approach taken by a 56-year-old farmer from India, Jadav Payeng, who found fame as the ‘Forest Man’. You may have heard of him or read about him. He made headlines because he planted trees and seedlings on a barren sandbar in Assam, a place once covered in forest.

For 30 years he worked. Tree by tree. And now this farmer has singlehandedly created a stunning, huge forest in India. It’s 550 hectares in size. That’s more than a thousand football fields combined! Many birds now live in the forest. And tigers and rhinos, too. As well as more than a hundred elephants.

It’s a true oasis, where life is possible once again. In an interview Jadav Payeng said, ‘I planted the forest for the people. It does not matter what my country has given me, but what matters is what I can do for my country.’

It’s an inspirational example, if you ask me, and it has direct parallels with human rights. Human rights are for human beings. For everyone. What matters is not what these rights can give us, but what we can do for other people. In other words, we need to be effective. Just like the Forest Man. And truly make a difference.


That brings me to my plea for effectiveness. Because the Netherlands can be effective in many different ways. By forming coalitions, and developing a joint agenda, commitment and approach. But also by working via the European Union. The United Nations. The Council of Europe. And through bilateral initiatives and activities.

Through all these channels we in the Netherlands are trying to take steps forward and achieve concrete results. And we’re always trying out new solutions. Because when it comes to combating human rights violations, there are no clear, simple guidelines for what to do in practice.

Former foreign minister Max van der Stoel, who had a distinguished international track record on human rights, once said: ‘There is no fixed recipe for government action to combat violations of human rights. Because those violations are different in nature.  Sometimes you have to use quiet diplomacy, working behind the scenes. Other times, you need to protest or apply heavy pressure.’

In my own time as foreign minister I’ve seen that for myself. I’ve learned that to get results you need to use different solutions every time.

Take the matter of prosecution and justice, which I discussed with that brave Yezidi woman, Nadia Murad, who managed to escape from her ISIS captors. I spoke with her about prosecution because the Netherlands has been working for some time on the collection of evidence by UN teams.

In fact, we’re the driving force behind the initiative. We’ve contributed €5.5 million, for example, to the UN’s evidence database on atrocities in Syria and the UN investigative team in Iraq, which are both collecting evidence of the horrific crimes committed by ISIS, so that soon we will have sufficient proof to move forward with prosecuting these people and bringing them to justice.

Because, as we know, without that final step – putting the perpetrators in the dock – there can be no justice. And therefore no deterrent to potential future perpetrators. No chance of redress for the victims and societies concerned. And thus no chance of peaceful societies in the longer term either. Something that’s in our own interest, too.

That’s one reason why, together with my Iraqi counterpart, I convened a meeting in New York in September with ministers and diplomats from 30 different countries, in order to draw up a plan for how to bring ISIS fighters to justice.

‘In an ideal world,’ I said at the time, ‘the International Criminal Court would take on this task itself.’ But Iraq does not recognise the Court, and the UN Security Council cannot agree on a path to prosecution.

I therefore asked those present to come up with alternatives. Such as an ad hoc international tribunal in the region, or a national prosecution in Iraq. Naturally on the condition that ISIS fighters receive a fair trial. So the Netherlands is also exploring how we can facilitate a legitimate trial, working in partnership with other countries and organisations. Because we know that we can make a difference here. That we can be effective.


But the group of countries and organisations working to bring ISIS fighters to justice is only one example of a coalition forged by the Netherlands to maximise our effectiveness.

Other examples include the Freedom Online Coalition, which was set up by the Netherlands. A group of 31 countries all working to promote internet freedom. After all, the internet has become a kind of central market square for the 21st century. A modern-day agora. And that means it’s also the canary in the coal mine. Because if a country decides to restrict human rights, the internet is where it will strike first. So a joint response is required, and our coalition makes that possible.

Another example is the Equal Rights Coalition, a unique group of 40 European and Latin American countries, as well as one country from Africa. All fighting to promote LGBTI rights, and proving in the process that equal rights are absolutely not some ‘Western’ phenomenon, but something universal.

Yet another example is the series of international academic conferences we are hosting this year and next in the Netherlands. Together with a wide variety of policymakers and experts in the field, we will be launching a dialogue on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of the press.

The final conference in the series, the World Press Freedom Conference 2020, will be held here at Leiden University! With Professors Jaap de Jong and Willem Koetsenruijter taking leading roles. Which is wonderful. Another great example of how we can reach out to each other in order to truly make a difference.

I’d like to mention one last coalition we’ve formed to make a practical difference in the field of human rights. A coalition between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of Dutch cities. The Shelter City Programme was founded in 2012 and is now running in 12 Dutch cities and five international locations.

This programme offers a temporary respite to human rights activists around the world who are facing threats or need time out to recuperate. Participants range from a Russian human rights lawyer, a Venezuelan journalist and a Nigerian lawyer to a women’s rights activist from Honduras and a Jamaican defender of equal rights for LGBTI people.

The aim is to give these people a chance to catch their breath. But also to offer them security training, so they can be more effective back in their own country. The Shelter City Programme is a perfect example of the coalitions we’re using to tackle human rights violations.


And yet, as I’ve already suggested, there are many roads that lead to Rome. I’m also trying to make an impact via the European Union. Because I know I’ll be more effective if I act in concert with the EU. I know that speaking through the EU makes my voice louder. 28 times louder, in fact.

And let’s not forget that the Netherlands was a founding member of the EU. And that the EU was built on human rights and justice – the oxygen fuelling European stability and security. For all these reasons, then, the Netherlands works via the EU to exert political pressure on countries that violate human rights. We also issue joint statements; we support projects relating to human rights and we include human rights clauses in trade agreements.

We also use the EU to strengthen our hand in the UN Security Council. For example, the Union has repeatedly called on the Council – partly at the Netherlands’ request – to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Because no one should be forced to live outside their own country.

We know that Syria’s refugees cannot return while President Assad’s security forces continue their rampage. After all, it was Assad the refugees were fleeing in the first place. And it is Assad who makes their return impossibly hazardous. So, as far as I’m concerned, he does not deserve a seat at the negotiating table, but rather a place in the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That is something we can try to bring about via the European Union.


Let me share one more example of how, in the EU, we can press ahead and take steps toward greater effectiveness. For over a year now, the Netherlands has been calling for the establishment of an EU human rights sanctions regime. And I’m delighted to report here that the Netherlands’ efforts have borne fruit. I’ve travelled here direct from Brussels, where yesterday all the EU foreign ministers expressed political support for this initiative.

This means we can now get to work on an EU decision that allows us to impose sanctions on human rights violators anywhere in the world. We can then deny them access not only to the EU’s territory, but also to financial assets in the EU. So they won’t be able to do business here anymore. Or shop 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 their bite. Now that’s what I call effective.


But the Netherlands can also take steps via the United Nations. Next year, for example, we will begin our three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council. Where we can take a close look at the situations in Myanmar, Yemen, China and Eritrea.

Clearly, membership of the Council requires that countries respect and promote human rights at home. It is not a free ride. And the Netherlands always reminds the members of that. Within the Council we can also focus on issues we consider important. Such as freedom of religion or belief, equal rights for LGBTI people and freedom of expression.

What’s more, this UN body is also an excellent platform for conducting a critical dialogue with a wide range of countries. Having said that, I also understand the frustrations that have been expressed. For example, some have complained about the fact that a country like Venezuela can be elected to the Council. After all, you don’t offer Dracula a job at the blood bank, do you? But that isn’t an argument for shutting down the blood bank, which performs a vital service. In any case, we will not hesitate to call Venezuela to account.

Our membership of the Human Rights Council also means that we ourselves can be called to account for our policy. By UN rapporteurs, for example, who have the power to call any member state to account. And that’s a good thing. Because if we want to challenge other countries about the bloodstains on their boots, we shouldn’t complain when someone points out a spot of mud on our sleeve.

So in short, I choose to work with the Human Rights Council because I would rather reform it from the inside than abandon it completely. It’s a much more effective approach.


But there’s also a second example of how the Netherlands can be effective on human rights working via the UN, and that is the use of sanctions. During our term on the Security Council sanctions were imposed – at our initiative – on human traffickers in Libya. We achieved that by expanding the criteria for the Libya sanctions regime, enabling it to be applied to human traffickers.

The United Nations now requires countries to freeze these criminals’ assets and enforce travel bans against them. And that’s crucial. After all, according to the International Labour Organization, human trafficking and modern slavery generate around $150 billion a year in revenue. That’s around €136 billion, earned every year off the back of human suffering.

It’s vital that we catch these criminals and prevent others from getting the same idea. That’s why we provided information that enabled the Security Council to place five individuals on the sanctions list.

And let me tell you, that was quite a step for the international community to take. These human traffickers may still be walking around free in Libya with cash in their pockets, but that isn’t half as much fun as when they could travel freely and spend their money in Dubai, Marbella and other beach resorts. Or when they still had the internet on their smartphones and a big, shiny SUV parked outside.

But if you were to ask me, ‘Has one single bank account been blocked?’, I would have to reply, ‘No, it hasn’t.’ And why not? Because those bank accounts are usually in the name of partners. Or cousins, children or personal assistants. Or the accounts are held in countries that don’t care about sanctions regimes. So you might think you’re taking three steps forward, but you’re also taking two steps back.

Not very effective, you might say.  But it’s important not to get discouraged. Because this kind of sanctions regime has a strong deterrent effect. And it also has a strong preventive effect, as I’ve said. The ‘bad guys’ know they won’t get away with these crimes.

In the Netherlands we are working on a new step. It’s called the Liechtenstein Initiative. Together with – you guessed it – Liechtenstein, as well as Australia, we’ve commissioned the development of a roadmap by financial experts from around the world.

They have drawn up concrete recommendations for everyone in the global financial sector. The aim is to ensure that the proceeds of human trafficking – the profits earned from modern slavery – do not flow through our international financial system. This road map, plus €300,000 in Dutch funding for its implementation, will help us apply extra pressure. Pressure on banks, for example. On hedge funds, pension funds, development finance institutions, insurance companies and fintech companies. To get them to really take action.

By doing so, they can help put an end to this human suffering while contributing at the same time to human well-being and economic growth. Because all those millions of slaves, who are currently being exploited and abused, constitute an enormous reservoir of people who could be making a valuable contribution to economies around the world, as well as to sustainable development. If only they were given the chance.


So in this way the Netherlands is tackling these issues step by step, working via the UN, the EU and in various coalitions. And of course, we’re working at bilateral level, too. In all my dealings with other countries – including those where major violations of human rights occur – I always address the topic of human rights. Always.

With Saudi Arabia, for example, I talk about the murder of journalist Kamal Khashoggi, about the rights of bloggers, and about women’s rights activists. With the Chinese I talk about the Uighurs, and the need to deal peacefully with the student protesters in Hong Kong.

But I also raise issues with my EU counterparts. When we see alarming developments with implications for democracy and the rule of law, for example. It’s disturbing that independent courts and hallmarks of democracy like dialogue and dissent are under pressure.

I make it clear to such countries that these problems do not merely impact the fundamental values on which our Union was built; they are also a threat to our practical cooperation. In areas like the single market, say, or judicial cooperation. This is precisely why the Netherlands supports the European Commission’s proposal for an annual review cycle to examine developments concerning the rule of law in all member states.

And of course, sometimes – mainly outside the EU – you have to look for different ways of making yourself heard. It’s the age-old story of the merchant and the missionary. If two countries trade with each other, they each have an interest in a positive, stable relationship. And that makes it possible to talk about other things too, such as human rights.

In other words, the merchant can open the door for the missionary. Once the merchant is inside, the country may listen to the Netherlands – now in the guise of missionary – when we explain how strongly we feel about universal values. And a land with a robust value system, like the Netherlands, in turn promotes the spirit of enterprise. Because it’s usually in countries that respect human rights where the rule of law functions properly. And those are the best countries to do business in, because there your investments are secure.

This understanding – that the merchant opens the door for the missionary – is widespread. And so that is how the Netherlands approaches these issues. In China, for example, we offer a course on EU law. On the functioning of the single market.  And we show how we approach the rule of law in that market.

If they’re interested, they can take a look at our rules, including on matters like legal certainty. And that’s something we can sell. But if we go to China and say, ‘We’re coming to give a course on human rights,’ their response will be, ‘Don’t bother. We don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.’

So sometimes you have to be pragmatic in order to drive home your message. And naturally, we have to ensure that we ourselves always set the right example. I’m sure you all know the top diplomat Renée Jones-Bos. She was the Netherlands’ first human rights ambassador, working under then foreign minister Jozias van Aartsen, and was also ambassador to the Russian Federation. According to Renée, a group of Russian human rights lawyers once told her:

‘The best thing you can do for us is make sure that your own country and the EU continue functioning properly. Because then you’ll be the “shining city on the hill”, a beacon of stability and the rule of law. Don’t give authoritarian regimes any opportunity to throw justified criticism back in your face. Just keep doing what you yourself have always advocated.’

Renée told that story because she too could see that a country like Russia will no longer accept a country like the Netherlands telling it what to do. She, like many of her current and former colleagues, focused instead on the things we can achieve. And besides supporting organisations and offering human rights activists tools and inspiration, that includes helping to develop the rule of law.

And sharing knowledge and expertise, of course. Which is why I’m delighted to have several driven international human rights defenders joining us tonight, and visiting our country. A  country with an international reputation in the field of peace and justice, and a major UN city – The Hague. A country, too, that works via the EU and the Council of Europe to promote shared values and strengthen institutions like the European Court of Human Rights.

In short, by sharing knowledge and expertise we can make a concrete difference on human rights around the globe. In a world where our individual influence is very limited and where we are faced with a difficult international political environment. A world where what seems certain today may be entirely different tomorrow.

I am trying, within that world, to tackle the problems step by step. Working together with my counterparts, and with policymakers and diplomats, so that we can truly be effective. And we are effective. Because we don’t get bogged down in philosophical considerations about what the justice system should look like in a given conflict zone. Instead, we invest money in large-scale, detailed evidence-gathering investigations, and then work with other countries to see how and where we can legitimately bring perpetrators to justice.

We don’t write book-length analyses of modern slavery, and how it affects over 40 million people worldwide. Instead, we’ve developed a sanctions regime to strip human traffickers of their assets. And we’re engaging in public-private partnerships with other governments and partners in the financial sector, so we can identify traffickers and give their victims access to the financial system.

And we don’t lecture endlessly about how corruption can undermine institutions and erode the foundations of democracy and the rule of law. Instead we’ve successfully proposed a blueprint for a global EU sanctions regime. So that we can truly deny human rights violators access to Europe and seize the assets and possessions they have here.


So we’re moving step by step, carefully planting and sowing as we go. Tree by tree, in fact. Like the Indian Forest Man has been doing for decades. So that hopefully, one day we will find ourselves in a far larger oasis, where people are guided by values like freedom, justice and truth.

Because those people also had courageous forefathers. People like Ben Telders, Rudoph Cleveringa and my own great uncle, Bram Blok. People who, at risk to their own lives, dared to speak out. Who stood up for others whose rights were being trampled and abused. It is those courageous people who continue to inspire me, and because of them, I feel a duty to take real action.

Because today, in 2019, there are still many innocent families sitting in camps, suffering from hunger, experiencing violence, enduring cold and sorrow, or learning that their loved ones are dead from sickness, war or malnutrition. Just as my father did when he was a nine-year-old boy in a Japanese camp.

But now my father can see his children and grandchildren grow up in freedom. Or, as he put it at the start of his memoirs, ‘My dear children and grandchildren, every time one of you reached the age of nine I felt joy and relief that this milestone had been passed in good health, safety and freedom.’

It’s a very moving passage. And I would add that everyone deserves to see their children and grandchildren grow up like that. In fact, it is everyone’s right. Because everyone has a right to live in dignity, health, safety and freedom. We will therefore remain committed to defending these values for as long as human rights violations persist. And we will do so with the mix of dedication and pragmatism for which we are known.

Thank you.