Speech by Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie at the opening of the Activist Night during the Movies That Matter Festival

Speech by Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie at the opening of the Activist Night during the Movies That Matter Festival, The Hague, 28 March 2023.

Enlarge image Bahia Tahzib-Lie
Bahia Tahzib-Lie.

Good evening everyone. I’m really honoured to be with you this evening, speaking about two subjects very close to my heart: human rights and the power of storytelling through film.

Movies have the power to connect us, to take us to new worlds, and to challenge us to think about critical issues. They allow us to imagine unimagined lives, see unseen perspectives and hear unheard narratives. Storytelling through film can really strike a chord within us. 

The Movies that Matter Festival vividly portrays the personal stories, long struggles and amazing victories of human rights defenders all over the world. These movies bring to life how human rights, regardless of the individual context, are universal. They are rights that all human beings should have – unconditionally.

Movies can convey the kind of message that my colleagues and I may need pages of bureaucratic language to explain. So, in many ways, cinema is an ideal medium for speaking to both the heart and the mind. And that’s exactly the thinking behind the festival’s Activist Night. To watch, listen, raise awareness, encourage public debate and inspire action. 

One key aim of tonight is to show how human rights violations on the other side of the world can impact us directly here – in
the Netherlands. But also to shine a light on the enormous sacrifices – and achievements – of human rights defenders all over the world, past and present. To help us appreciate the importance of their work, and the great danger they often face. And to offer the kind of support and protection they need to be effective.

Movies that matter showcase impactful stories of people that matter. What’s more, they can change people and their stories. Movies that Matter is a unique platform for stories that audiences often don’t know enough about. These stories often show oppression in its worst form. And, at the same time, they show the remarkable bravery, strength and resilience of human rights defenders. 

These movies make us wonder: ‘What would I have done in their place?’  They help us realise that the things we share as human beings are far greater than the forces that divide us.

And it’s all the more important we remember that this year, as the world marks significant human rights anniversaries. Such as the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And 25 years since the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted.

If ever there was a moment to revitalise the dream of human rights for everyone, it is now. These anniversaries are a perfect opportunity to galvanise forces around human rights. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has rightly said, ‘When the world is fragmented, human rights are the glue to bring us all back together.’

Tonight’s film is a captivating and thought-provoking documentary. A Story of Bones tells the story of Annina Van Neel, who discovered a disturbing secret on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s wonderful to have Annina here with us at this year’s Activist Night. Thank you for joining us this evening, Annina.

It’s empowering to witness Annina’s unwavering dedication to reclaiming and honouring the neglected history of St Helena, after the remains of thousands of enslaved African men, women and children were uncovered on this remote island. That unmarked mass burial ground is the most significant physical remaining trace of the transatlantic slave trade. In the film, history speaks to us through thousands of bones.

No wonder Annina says that ‘every time we find another piece of human remains, I can’t sleep that night.’

The film celebrates personal victories and describes collective setbacks along Annina’s journey to achieve global recognition
for the previously unknown burial ground. Her lonely quest leads to unexpected connections, as she slowly finds a sense of belonging and purpose. And succeeds in preserving the memory and dignity of the forgotten victims of slavery.

Her actions did justice to the past and helped foster healing in the present. This documentary is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. It’s a reminder of the innumerable sacrifices made and the suffering endured in the struggle for freedom, dignity and rights. And A Story of Bones remains as relevant as ever, as the world continues to grapple with racism, and with the legacy of slavery.

By facing our past, we can pave the way towards a more equitable future. And commit to an inclusive society where there is no room for racism and inequality. That mission is especially significant this year, as the Kingdom of the Netherlands commemorates the 150th anniversary of the final abolition of slavery in its former colonies: Suriname and the Kingdom’s Caribbean islands. Learning about the stories of enslaved people gives us a better sense of the huge numbers involved. It helps us see that behind those statistics were human beings.

Just like you or me.

Any one of us…

A mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother or friend.

A human being forced to endure a long and cruel journey across continents and seas.

It’s all there in our archives. It’s an undeniable historical fact. We only need to open Anton de Kom’s famous book, We Slaves of Suriname, to read accounts of the most inhuman treatment and punishment.

Those remains on the island of St Helena are also historical facts. Behind them are the unimaginable stories of families torn apart, and people robbed of their identity and humanity. So many stories and so much pain. We are all connected to this history. Consciously or unconsciously.

On Saturday, the world marked the annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It’s incredibly important, especially in this special commemorative year, to listen to the descendants of those people, who grew up hearing stories of their ancestors’ struggle for freedom and dignity.

We need to acknowledge their pain and suffering. Because the lives of those ancestors matter. Because the effects of centuries of oppression and exploitation can still be felt today. That’s why it’s so important to establish a Dutch museum confronting our history of slavery. It will be built in Amsterdam. To keep this history alive and shine a light on its enduring impact.

Because, unfortunately, racism is still a very real problem in our society. It is still with us. We see it in the news, in the public debate, in our communities, at schools and at work. Even at my workplace, in fact – the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I also hear about it from human rights defenders during my visits around the world. And when they tell me about how their organisations and countries are working to combat racism, I find it truly inspirational. In South Africa, for instance, I was impressed by the dedication
to truth, healing and reconciliation I witnessed.

However challenging the process may be, it’s vital for a better future.  And in Brazil last week, I learned about the new Ministry of Racial Equality, and its mandate to tackle the country’s deeply ingrained racial disparities. This ministry is led by Anielle Franco, the sister of a murdered black LGBTIQ+ city councillor and activist.

I’m encouraged that awareness is steadily growing. Awareness that we have to change the way we think, judge,
speak and act. That we must do better. Around the world. And in the Netherlands.

With that in mind, it’s significant that, in December last year, Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged the role of the Netherlands in the history of slavery and the terrible suffering inflicted on generations of enslaved people. On behalf of the Dutch government, he apologised for the past actions of the Dutch State. He apologised to the enslaved people of the past, everywhere in the world, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, right up to the present day.

We must never forget their lives of bondage. We must forever remember their legacy. By seeing our shared past for what it is, we can confront the challenges of the present and move toward a better shared future.

Movies like A Story of Bones have the power to inspire us and challenge us. In a world where human rights are violated in so many places, both online and offline, it’s never too late to make people realise why ending racism and all forms of discrimination matters. Why achieving human rights for everyone matters. And why standing up for those rights matters – both close to home and further afield.

We must all make a positive difference. We must all help foster inclusive and just societies. And we must all work together to share the vision the world first expressed 75 years ago:  that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

I wish you all an inspiring evening.

Thank you.