Speech by Ben Knapen, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the presentation of the Human Rights Tulip, 6 December 2021
Good afternoon, everyone.
Welcome to you all on this special occasion, the Human Rights Tulip award ceremony.
It is a great privilege to announce the winner and present them with this beautiful flower.
Thinking about the work of human rights defenders brings to mind images of injustice …
… of the abuses they fight against …
… and the persecution they themselves face...
… because of the work they do, and for simply being who they are.
These images are so intense that we sometimes almost forget that their work makes all the difference.
The job of a human rights defender is as essential as that of a doctor, a nurse, a farmer or a firefighter:
Without doctors and firefighters, we could lose what we have... our lives, our homes …
and without human rights defenders, we lose what we are. Ourselves.
That’s what I want to talk to you about today.
About why the work of human rights defenders is so essential…
It’s essential not only because it protects our rights to what we have. And to be who we are. But also because it moves us forward.
(The audience was shown a video of Nunca Más)
That was Nunca Más. Never again.
A collective of human rights defenders. Each one has their own story… And they all have a shared story.
They all protested against injustice and persecution in their home country, Nicaragua.
They all were forced to leave their country… because the government made their work impossible... and because they feared for their lives.
And they all continued their work unabated.
Gonzalo Carrión, for example, who has spent half his life fighting for human rights, and doesn’t know any better than to give it his all.
And the same goes for Wendy Flores, who cannot imagine ever stopping, despite the aggressive pushback she sometimes faces.
Together with other activists they form a collective that has proved to be of invaluable worth, even though they must do their work in exile in Costa Rica.
From there, they‘ve built a cyberbridge to Nicaragua.
A bridge that goes in two directions.
Nunca Más provides training and advice to the human rights defenders who are still in Nicaragua.
And receives detailed reports of abuses happening there.
For example, the organisation collected information about more than 400 incidents of torture and other human rights abuses and wrote five reports about them.
But their success lies not only in recording what has already happened.
It also lies in the way they are preparing a better and more democratic future for their home country.
To do that, it’s essential to gather evidence.
Not only because that’s the first step towards justice. But also because it gives Nicaraguans a much-needed dose of confidence…
Their voices are heard, at home and around the world.
And that is the key to Nunca Más’s success.
It is the power of more.
Of a collective of courageous people protecting a collective memory.
And they have been successful in their efforts.
Because it will never be possible to forget what’s happening during the Ortega regime. Nunca Más, indeed.
(The audience was shown a black screen)
Yes, what you’re looking at is a black screen.
And no, there’s nothing wrong. Well actually, there is something wrong.
The black screen is the result of the pitch-black reality in Russia, where one of the oldest human rights organisations is currently under threat of being shut down.
In that reality, Mari Davtyan helps women who feel unsafe every day.
Women who are subjected to violence in their own homes. At the hands of their own husband.
Margarita, for example, a Russian mother of two.
When her husband threatened her with a knife, she decided to go to the police.
But they just sneered at her. The officers she spoke to said it wasn’t serious enough.
Not long after, her husband took her to the woods.
And chopped off both of her hands with an axe.
One of her hands, which had been preserved in the cold snow, was reattached through several complicated and painful surgeries.
But she lost the other hand entirely.
What Margarita went through is horrific, but not unique.
In Russia, violence against women is commonplace.
It seems that the country has grown complacent about domestic violence.
In 2017 domestic violence was downgraded from a serious offence to a misdemeanour if there are no injuries. So what’s the point in sticking your neck out?
Lawyer Mari Davtyan represented Margarita in court.
And with success. Margarita’s husband was sentenced to 14 years in prison for what he did.
Margarita’s is just one of the many court cases that Mari has instituted.
Cases that have had a successful outcome.
Because she has won many of them and that sends a strong message.
To men like Margarita’s husband.
And to the government that doesn’t do enough to prevent such violence.
But also because every case that she wins is a victory over complacency.
The paralysing thought that wrongdoing won’t be punished anyway.
Mari has seen that the women she talks to gradually gain more confidence.
Including Margarita herself, who bravely makes regular appearances on TV, with her bionic hand, and has written a book…
… to inspire other women…
… and give them the strength they need to speak out about injustice. Strength that she was given by Mari.
(The audience was shown a video of Nicholas Opiyo)
How can you make a real difference?
Nicholas Opiyo has pondered that question since he was young.
As a child he listened to the BBC with his father every evening.
And in the neighbourhood he lived in he occasionally saw a reporter from the BBC doing her work.
That inspired him. The woman reported on what she was seeing. Nicholas wanted to do that too.
Because he had seen a lot.
The way soldiers had confined his father in a stadium for days, for example. How they tortured and humiliated him there.
He saw even more on his long evening journeys to safety, as a night commuter.
How young children would do anything to stay safe, and like him, walked for hours at night.
And how some didn’t make it.
How they fell into the hands of the rebel army.
Nicholas saw injustice, and said no.
That’s why he wanted to be a journalist.
Of that he was certain... until he saw how his cousin was making a difference.
By offering legal aid services to help people in rural areas protect their land rights. But also as a politician and opposition leader.
That’s when Nicholas discovered another calling.
And decided to become a lawyer.
Because in the court room you can truly change the injustices that you see.
And that’s exactly what Nicholas wanted: change.
Nicholas once saw two lesbian women being beaten by their neighbours.
He thought that wasn’t fair and decided to represent them for free.
It would be his first LGBTI case and just one of many cases that have made a difference.
He also campaigned against an anti-gay law prescribing a life sentence for homosexuality...
Thanks to Nicholas that law was not enacted.
And it’s safe to say that that has had a far-reaching impact... even though it’s hard to measure something that didn’t happen.
Think of all the people who are not in prison, for example.
And the anti-gay climate that has fortunately not grown even more toxic.
As Nicholas himself said, ‘Hatred was halted in its path.’
His work has not only prevented a wrong, it has also yielded something good.
Confidence is growing among LGBTI people in Uganda. People feel stronger… in the knowledge that they have allies who support them.
If you look at the human rights situation in the world from a great height, you’ll see that it is stormy… and has been for a long time.
There are ominous dark skies in certain places, and thick grey clouds over the rest of the world.
Over Europe, too, where oppression of LGBTI people is increasing.
And over the Netherlands, where a journalist was recently murdered.
And over this studio, where you just saw a black screen.
That grey cloud cover makes it difficult for us to see the whole story.
To do that, you have to zoom in to see the essential work being done by Mari, Nicholas and the people of Nunca Más.
People who not only defend who we are, but also inspire us and, yes, change us.
So, from a great height things might look the same all over the world, but on the surface we can see that it’s constantly changing.
In our minds. And in who we are.
Friends, now it’s time for me to announce the winner.
This year’s Human Rights Tulip is awarded to…
For making a difference and inspiring confidence in people.
Not only LGBTI people, as I just mentioned…
… but also young Ugandans who are active on social media.
For them, their phones are a cyberbridge to the rest of the world…
… a way to discover the world and for the world to discover them.
Because it gives them a voice and allows them to unite.
But to do that, they need confidence. Confidence that Nicholas has given them. For example, by ensuring that Facebook couldn’t be compelled to disclose the identity of a young Ugandan blogger who criticised the government.
Even when Nicholas was in prison – accused by the government of money-laundering without evidence – his work continued.
He helped other prisoners and gave them legal advice.
He managed to secure the release of 68 people, and made them stronger and more assertive.
In other words, he enabled them to make a difference, too.
Nicholas Opiyo, please accept my warmest congratulations!