Speech by Secretary-General Paul Huijts at the Movies that Matter Festival

Speech by Secretary-General Paul Huijts at the Movies that Matter Festival, 12 April 2022.

When I was in my twenties I saw some footage on TV that I can still recall in detail to this day.

I'm sure that anyone who watched the news at the time will too.

In fact, I’m pretty sure those images are familiar even to people who weren’t born when it happened.

The footage showed an unknown Chinese man holding two shopping bags, blocking a column of tanks on an enormous deserted square. 

He became known as ‘Tank Man’.

We know nothing else about him.

The power of repression is immense, yet so was the strength of this man. 

An ordinary man, but also a great defender of human rights who dared to stand alone and challenge oppression. 

Today, more than thirty years later, his actions are still etched in our memories. 

A few weeks ago, we saw images similar to this. 

During a Russian TV news broadcast, a woman appeared behind the presenter holding up a poster.

'Stop the war!’ it said. ‘Don't believe in propaganda. They're lying to you!

Later we learnt her name. 

Marina Ovsyannikova. 

A journalist who could no longer bear the lies spread by the station she worked for.

I thought of these two brave people when I spoke with Daxiong, an activist, artist and protagonist in the film you will see tonight, Eternal Spring

A film about the suppression of the Falun Gong movement and the resilience of Daxiong and others in fighting oppression. 

Their stories have a lot in common:

Whether you climb onto a tank, interrupt a TV broadcast, or briefly take over Chinese state television, as in Eternal Spring, it takes an enormous amount of courage to stand up and take action.

Courage that often comes at a price.  

Yet while the stories of Tank Man, Marina and Daxiong show oppression at its worst and courage at its best, ultimately their stories are about impact.

About the power of mavericks. Enabled by the power of images. 

It may be news footage. Or, like today, a hard-hitting documentary.

And with that in mind, it was a very conscious choice of the Dutch government to fund the Festival’s Activist programme.

Because movies that matter tell extraordinary human stories. 

Personal stories that move us personally. 

The people in these films are fighting for rights that, too often, we take for granted.

These films make human rights both tangible and relatable. 

They show us that human rights violations, wherever they take place, are relevant to us here. 

And that it’s not only a moral imperative but also a Dutch interest to promote dissenting voices.

This interest is demonstrated by the unique role that human rights defenders play in our world.

You could compare this role with that of bees in nature. Without bees, entire ecosystems shift out of balance. 

They ultimately become extinct.

By silencing human rights defenders, you eliminate diverse and dissonant voices, with similar consequences. 

You only have to look at Russia’s actions to see what can happen. 

A terrible war caused by the delusions of one man, who cannot be opposed in a country where dissident voices are suppressed. 

More broadly, the war in Ukraine is also about human rights, strong democracies, and respect for the rule of law.  

Indeed, if you look at the world from above, Ukraine forms a clear border:

Between the rule of law and the rule of the iron rod.

Between the freedom of democracy and the yoke of despotism.

And between respect for human rights and the dead bodies scattered in the streets of Bucha.

Yet while the choice between these two alternatives is a no-brainer, democracy is shrinking worldwide. 

More than half of the world’s population live under a totalitarian regime. 

Less than 10 per cent live in a fully-fledged democracy. 

Meanwhile, respect for human rights is decreasing. 

And those defending them are increasingly being threatened, detained, beaten, or worse. 

All as part of a careful, systematic strategy to control and silence human rights defenders.

For these reasons, the Dutch government believes in taking a holistic approach towards human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Where we not only speak out against violations, but at the same time invest in protecting rights.

Human rights defenders are a key part of this approach. 

We support them by offering them a safe haven in Dutch cities.

By training them and by improving their skills and knowledge. 

And by offering them all kinds of support.  

Not only because every human being has the right to stand up for the rights they believe in, but also because we all have a right to hear their dissonant voices.

Because these people are defending our rights, too. 

And because a safe, free world is only possible if opposition is allowed to exist.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Tonight, this festival is showing several movies that matter, such as On These Grounds, about racism in the United States, No Place for You in Our Town about neo-Nazism in Europe and Eternal Spring, which we will watch together later. 

For more than 20 years, members of the Falun Gong movement have been subject to arbitrary detention, persecution and torture.

Today’s film is about the oppression they face. 

But above all, it’s about resilience, and ultimately about impact.

About the courage of ordinary people who defend not only their own rights, but also yours and mine. 

By encouraging others to speak out. 

By making us aware that repression elsewhere ultimately affects us here.

And by ensuring that their powerful images remain etched in our memories. 

As a constant reminder of the need to protect the rights that allow all of us to live in freedom and safety.
Thank you.