Minister Hoekstra: speech at the presentation of a royal decoration to Alexander Hug

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra at the presentation of a royal decoration to Alexander Hug, 15 July 2022.

Your Excellencies,

Mr Hug and family,

Ladies and gentlemen,

On Sunday, it will be precisely eight years ago that flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

298 people lost their lives.

196 of them were Dutch nationals.

They left behind empty seats at dinner tables, empty desks in offices, and empty places in our lives.

Everyone in the Netherlands still remembers where they were when they heard the news.

We all remember the grief, powerlessness and anger we felt that day.

And the uncertainty in the days that followed.

The wreckage of flight MH17 was spread out over an area where Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainian forces.

Where the frontlines were shifting back and forth.

Where artillery fire was constant, and troops always on the move.

Retrieving the victims’ remains seemed an almost impossible task, as did securing the crash site for forensic investigators.

And those tasks may well have been impossible, were it not for the tireless efforts of Alexander Hug and his dedicated, hard-working team.

At the time of the disaster, Mr Hug was in his office in Kyiv, where he worked as the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission.

He wasted no time.

Although very little was known about the situation on the ground, Mr Hug immediately assembled a small team, and raced to the crash site.

They soon realised that the site was located deep in disputed territory, controlled by separatists, and surrounded by fluid front lines.

As they drove towards the still-smoking wreckage, they were repeatedly stopped by armed men, who fired warning shots over their heads and threatened them aggressively.

But they carried on.

Their mandate was to monitor and report, to reduce tensions and to foster peace.

In the days, weeks and months after the downing, Mr Hug and his team went above and beyond what could have been expected of them within that mandate.

They made contact with the separatist leadership.

They demanded access to the crash site.

They negotiated to help facilitate the return of the victims’ remains, to secure the crash site and to provide access to forensic investigators.

The OSCE monitoring mission was the only party in a position to negotiate with all sides, to keep all channels open and facilitate what needed to be done.

None of this was safe or simple.

Alexander Hug and his team regularly found themselves in the crossfire.

Their work was interrupted by bursts of gunfire, rounds of explosives and artillery barrages.

While facilitating the removal of remains and belongings, they often had to take shelter in the basements of houses in local villages.

In a particularly harrowing moment, guards at a separatist checkpoint forced them to choose between driving on – and being shot at – or driving back into an artillery bombardment.

Mr Hug and his team drove back to where the shells were falling.

Both their vehicles were hit by shrapnel. One was so badly damaged they had to leave it behind.

Incredibly, after this they still managed to cross over into separatist territory, and to return to the crash site the next day.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

There, on the front lines, the OSCE proved its invaluable worth in fostering peace and stability.

This organisation plays a unique role in deeply fractured political landscapes.

It has a proven track record of keeping diplomatic channels open, even – and especially – when the bullets are flying.

When political situations deteriorate to the point of violent conflict, having people who can gather reliable information and communicate with all sides is indispensable.

The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is the very embodiment of that word: indispensable.

With tenacity, objectivity and great personal courage, they have done us all a great service.

It was thanks to this mission, and to the immense efforts of Alexander Hug and his team, that the victims’ remains were brought to the Netherlands, where they were identified and returned to their families.

We all remember that emotionally charged homecoming.

A long line of black cars, each carrying a single coffin.

The roads lined with grieving people.

The return of these remains provided at least some measure of comfort for the victims’ families.

The opening of the crash site to forensic investigators provided the first opportunity for evidence-gathering.

A crucial first step on the long road to justice.

And we are still on that long road, moving forward step by step.

In 2018, Australia and the Netherlands jointly held Russia responsible for its role in the downing of flight MH17.

Since then, we have pursued multiple courses of action: formal negotiations, international legal proceedings, and prosecutions under Dutch criminal law.

Eventually, these will help us achieve justice.

Hopefully, they will also bring a measure of closure for the victims’ families, and for us as a grieving nation.

But while these processes continue, a new tragedy is unfolding in the very spot where flight MH17 was shot down.

Russia’s unwarranted, unprovoked, brutal and bloody invasion of Ukraine.

This war of aggression is an unacceptable and criminal act.

In the five months since the invasion began, we have seen an unending litany of horrors.

Murdered civilians, bombed-out cities, food blockades.

So far, more than 20,000 war crimes and crimes of aggression have been reported in Ukraine.

In the face of so much destruction, the world needs the assurance that criminals will be held to account.

That is why, yesterday, here in The Hague, we hosted the Ukraine Accountability Conference.

To coordinate international justice initiatives.

To establish joint programmes for evidence-gathering.

And to raise much-needed funds for these efforts.

As a nation that has also suffered the effects of Russian-inflicted violence in Ukraine, we will never waver in our support for justice.

Mr Hug,

Our country owes you a great debt of gratitude.

For your services to the victims of flight MH17 and their families. For your unwavering efforts to advance international peace and stability. And for your personal courage in doing this difficult work.

I am therefore delighted to inform you that it has pleased His Majesty the King to appoint you Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau.

I shall now present you with the insignia of the Order.