Statement by Foreign Minister Koenders to the Human Rights Council

Statement by Foreign Minister Bert Koenders to the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council (Geneva, 29 February 2016)

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

Two years ago, a Syrian man wanted to find out what had happened to his son in prison. He went to a military police station in Damascus. 

The father watched and listened as he waited for his turn among dozens of other families.

People around him were being told that their relatives were dead.

When the man’s turn came, an employee told him that his son had died of a heart attack. He was told to collect a death certificate at the military hospital.

But the father refused. In his words, ‘it would be like giving them permission to kill my son.’

Many Syrian families have experiences like this man’s. We are witnessing a cover-up. A great number of official Syrian death certificates give ‘heart attack’ as a detainee’s cause of death. Yet in the rare cases when a family manages to obtain the body, it always bears marks of torture.

Today I want to stress three points. First, the importance of establishing the truth and seeing that justice is done. Second, the false choice between security and human rights. And third, the urgent need to fix the human rights system - because we can’t afford the status quo. The human rights situation worldwide is alarming, and we must improve it.

Without the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, we would never have heard about the father I just mentioned. For its recent report on detention, the Commission of Inquiry collected hundreds of accounts. Thousands of detainees have died in custody – either as a result of torture or because they were denied adequate food and water or proper medical care. These findings back up the photographic evidence verified last year by Human Rights Watch, which documented the deaths of almost 7,000 prisoners.

Human rights abuse in Syria extends far beyond detention centres. There is overwhelming evidence of violations by the Syrian regime and by terrorist organisations like Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra. And we are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The Commission’s access to Syria is still limited, five years after it was established by this Human Rights Council.

Steps have recently been taken towards de-escalation in Syria. The agreements could bring a political solution to the conflict closer.

Let me underline that such a solution can only last if it provides justice for the victims. Without knowing the full truth, we cannot hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. And without full accountability, there can be no justice. That is why the Commission of Inquiry must have immediate access. It must have unimpeded access. And it must have ongoing access.

To ensure future accountability, we are funding the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. Impunity must not be allowed. The Netherlands therefore reiterates its call for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. When mass atrocities are taking place, the world must not accept paralysis. In such cases, the permanent members of the Security Council should refrain from using their vetoes, lest they become complicit in perpetuating the conflict.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Over the past year, terrorists have carried out heinous attacks in many countries. Cameroon, France, Indonesia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen – the list is far from complete. Terrorism is a global plague. To protect civilians, international organisations, governments and civil society must work together.

They must trust each other and share information. In order to encourage this process, last month I hosted in The Hague a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Global Coalition to Counter Da’esh, to discuss foreign terrorist fighters. The meeting adopted 41 very practical agreements to stop foreign terrorist fighters at borders and to halt financial flows that fund terrorism.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands rejects the false choice between security and human rights. Respecting human rights and protecting human beings are vital for any stable and secure society. There is no pause button for human rights. It’s an illusion to think that they can be put on hold, even temporarily, in the name of stability or security. There is no excuse for repressing freedom of speech or the press or silencing opposition voices and human rights defenders. Repression may create a false sense of security in the short run, but eventually it always begets instability and violent extremism. The best guarantee for stability is a society that is free from discrimination. A society that offers protection against human rights violations and upholds individual freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief.   

The Netherlands welcomes the UN Secretary-General’s Action Plan for Preventing Violent Extremism, which stresses the link between human rights violations and terrorism. I support the Secretary-General’s call for national action plans; we have one in the Netherlands. With a focus on prevention, reintegration and rehabilitation, we are managing to draw people back into our society.

Human rights are permanent, and they are universal. There are now at least 60 million displaced persons in the world. Migration can put pressure on societies. But no society, in Europe or elsewhere, can apply human rights selectively. We should always keep in mind that the way we treat migrants and refugees is a reflection of who we are.

Ladies and gentlemen,

2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council. It provides an opportunity to reflect on what is working well and what needs improvement. The Universal Periodic Review, the Special Rapporteurs and the Commissions of Inquiry are notable achievements. But overall, the human rights situation around the world gives very little cause for celebration. It is at a historic low.

We must do better, and this is may be how to do it:

The need for access applies to places besides Syria. The Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry on the DPRK, Iran, Eritrea and the Palestinian Territories should also be given access so they can do their valuable work. I believe that such a Commission of Inquiry could also do good work in other cases where national enquiries for years have faced many obstacles, such as in Yemen. Moreover, all UN member states should extend standing invitations to the thematic Special Rapporteurs.
The Human Rights Council must respect the independence of the High Commissioner and his office. Trying to steer their work not only weakens their effectiveness, it also puts their impartiality at risk.

The Netherlands fully supports the High Commissioner’s Change Initiative, and calls on all Council members to enable him to carry it out. The initiative will help strengthen his office’s regional presence. In particular, regional hubs will enhance the ability of the Office of the High Commissioner to pick up signals of human rights violations at an early stage. They make it possible to gather information on the ground, to report on the situation and to provide advice quickly – before events escalate.

When a human rights crisis does emerge, rapid response is crucial. Right now the process is unacceptably slow. When the Human Rights Council decided to send OHCHR experts to Yemen and Burundi, it took months before they could travel there. Bureaucracy is one cause of delay, and it is intolerable. In a crisis, the UN should allow emergency procedures for launching these missions.
Sessions of the Human Rights Council, including the Universal Periodic Reviews, are important tools for setting norms and holding each other accountable. Countries that are elected to the Council have a special duty to uphold human rights standards. ‘Practice what you preach’ applies as much to the Netherlands as to Burundi or Saudi Arabia.

As the Universal Periodic Review enters its third cycle, there is a risk of repeating the same recommendations. We should shift our attention to the actual measures that countries take to follow up on those recommendations.

Finally, we should embrace new technologies to monitor and report on human rights. The Netherlands just organised what we call a ‘DiploHack’, challenging teams of diplomats, human rights defenders, tech developers and academics to come up with innovative ways of collecting, verifying and transmitting information about human rights violations. We are presenting the results of the DiploHack today. They should help this office deal even better with information about human rights violations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights are under tremendous pressure worldwide. We must do a better job of establishing the facts. We must end impunity. And we must protect all social and political human rights, even in the face of threats to our security.

We cannot afford to let the human rights system to become a set of empty rituals. We owe this to that Syrian father. We owe it to our own citizens.

Thank you.

Ministry responsible