Eliot Higgins awarded Treaties of Nijmegen Medal: speech by Secretary-General Paul Huijts

Speech by Secretary-General Paul Huijts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the presentation of the Treaties of Nijmegen Medal for Eliot Higgins on 18 April 2024.

Enlarge image Eliot Higgins awarded Treaties of Nijmegen Medal
Image: ©Mathijs Hanenkamp

The truth can often be found in tiny details…

Details as small as a screw cap.

A screw cap telling a trained eye that the warhead it sealed contained liquid. And, after painstaking research, that this warhead was part of a Soviet-made artillery rocket. And that the liquid was sarin.  

The truth can be found in details as small as the whisker spot pattern of a lion. Because, apparently, that's how you can distinguish one lion from another: by the pattern of spots above its mouth. A pattern that eventually led to a trader in Dubai, who was selling wild animals to celebrities from his 13th floor apartment.

All this might sound like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes page-turner… like fiction. But it’s all true.

If our highest goal is to do justice, in the service of a rules-based global order, truth-seeking must remain a central objective. And so there is something in those examples that I find empowering: the truth isn't just ‘out there’. It’s everywhere. It’s right under our nose. That is, provided you’re as skilled and dedicated as the researchers from Bellingcat.

As founder Eliot Higgins once described one of his discoveries: ‘Seated in my office in Middle England, I had clarified the front line of a war zone thousands of miles away. All I had needed was a YouTube clip and Google Maps, and a sketch on printer paper.’

Ladies and gentlemen,

Members of the Steering Group of the Treaties of Nijmegen Medal,

Mr Higgins,

It's a true pleasure to deliver this laudation today. And to meet you in person. Although I've known about you for a long time. And I've admired your work for just as long. Ten years, to be precise. Because that's how long Bellingcat has been in existence. It was founded just before Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was downed on the 17th of July 2014. A tragic event that left a deep impression on all of us. Including me.

A month after the disaster I took up the role of Secretary-General at the Prime Minister’s office. And there, I witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy. Seeing the victims’ remains arriving back at Eindhoven Airport was a moment I – like many others – will never forget. That was how I came to know about Bellingcat. And it will always be linked in my mind to the MH17 investigation.

By using open-source information from Google Earth and social media, Bellingcat researchers were able to reconstruct how and by whom the aircraft was downed. Bellingcat, as you know, concluded that the Russian Federation was responsible for the downing of flight MH17. The international Joint Investigation Team conducted its own thorough and independent criminal investigation into the downing and came to the same conclusion.

Bellingcat’s investigation into the MH17 disaster firmly established it as an investigative journalism organisation. Not only by bringing the truth to light, but also by ensuring that a broad audience became aware of the truth. It was all the work of just a handful of volunteers, with the stamina and power of a great legion.

On behalf of the Dutch government, I want to express our deep gratitude to Bellingcat, and to you, Mr Higgins, for your invaluable work on finding the truth behind the downing of flight MH17.

And for showing us the truth in so many other places:

  • Exposing the use of chemical weapons in Syria;
  • Unmasking the agents who poisoned Alexei Navalny back in 2020;
  • And uncovering deceptive practices in conflicts from Cameroon to Yemen.

As we speak, you continue to seek truth in the conflicts plaguing our world, such as Gaza and Ukraine. For example, by debunking claims that the massacres in Bucha were staged. Every time you expose a bombing, arms delivery or assassination attempt, you demonstrate that the truth can be found everywhere. That it indeed can survive the darkest times. And that it can bring justice.

Your ability to connect bits and bytes of public information, truly complements the work of official agencies. You have assisted the ICC in using open-source material in criminal cases. With success. A couple of years ago, the ICC issued an arrest warrant based almost entirely on social media videos, which was a groundbreaking event at the time.

In a similar way, you are also helping the Dutch government in its goal to promote justice and accountability. In Syria, for example, where a tiny screw cap not only leads to the truth, but can provide vital evidence when developing sanctions against those responsible for using chemical weapons. And, to go back to MH17, the Dutch government is also using Bellingcat data in the cases against Russia before the European Court of Human Rights and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Mr Higgins,

by uncovering these facts, you are contributing to a truth that everyone in Europe believes in: For justice to prevail, the truth must first be found out. Yet your work is also important in another way.

We are living in a complex era, characterised by terrible conflicts and wars. And at the same time, by polarisation. We can all see it around us: At the micro-level in our immediate surroundings. In this country, and other countries, where more and more people are disengaging due to their growing mistrust. And on the macro-level, globally, where we see democracies facing unprecedented challenges, and countries positioned squarely against each other.

Everywhere we look, the ground beneath our feet seems so hardened by rigid views and self-righteousness, that unity will never be able to grow and flourish. Yet these hardened views are often supported by evidence as soft as butter, as we say in the Netherlands.

Take those lion whisker spots. While everyone was obsessed by the celebrities buying these animals, one of Bellingcat’s researchers was more interested in where the animals were being bought. He exposed the truth in a place where no one had bothered to look.

In this way, Bellingcat has managed to break free from the whirlwind: The vicious cycle in which we find ourselves. Not just by pinpointing what we’re doing wrong, but by showing how we can do things differently. Through radical diligence, resisting our desire for quick and easy answers. Through radical impartiality in every conflict, because human rights violations occur on both sides. Through radical transparency, from your research methodology to your findings. Allowing others to judge every step you make, and learn from what you’ve found. And finally, through radical democracy. From the very start, when you brought Bellingcat to life through Kickstarter, to the current decisions made by the editorial team. As you once said, Mr Higgins: 'I don't want Bellingcat to become an organisation with one person at the helm making all the decisions.'

All of this requires something else that we currently lack in our black and white world, where impartiality leads to hostility, and any error leads to repercussions… And that is vulnerability, in its purest form.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Mr Higgins,

Let me conclude. We all know your painstaking work contributes to the pursuit of truth in our country, in Europe, in our world. Your radical vulnerability not only protects our European values, but helps lead us all in Europe towards a place we want to be. Showing how new technology can actually help us find the truth, instead of distorting it.

Thank you.