Speech by the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag, at the Human Rights Council

Madam Vice President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

‘The case we present is a plea from humanity to law.’  
That was a description, offered in 1946 by the young prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz at the Nuremberg trials, where key Nazi leaders responsible for the Holocaust, the deaths of millions of people, were eventually convicted.
Thanks to Ferencz and his fellow prosecutors, the plea from humanity to law was, indeed, heard. The voiceless had been given a voice. A powerful message: the law was indeed on their side.

To make this historic process possible, one thing was essential: the holders of power had to take a step back, and yield to the law.
The chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, expressed his gratitude about this very fact in his opening statement. It was, he said, ‘one of the most significant tributes that power had ever paid to reason’.

Your excellencies,
Why quote these words on the day I am pleased to announce the Netherlands’ candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council for the 2020-2022 term?
Because today is a perfect moment to recall importance of the power of principles over the principles of power. The principles that the Netherlands stands for since Hugo Grotius, a world in which right, and not might, has the final word. A world in which the law answers, when humanity makes a plea.

As a medium size trading nation, we have an interest in a rules-based world. Because respect for human rights is an important prerequisite for stability, for growth, trade and wellbeing - as we can also read in numerous studies and reports. The choice between interests and values is a false dichotomy however. We do not need to choose between values and interest – they are mutually reinforcing. Human rights are universal for a good reason.


The system of protections developed after the Second World War and founded on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something to be proud of, to cherish and to nurture, because it is centred on human dignity. It was – and 70 years later it remains – a new Magna Carta for humanity.
We cannot afford to take this for granted. Where the law of the jungle once prevailed, the Universal Declaration now provides us with an open, safe space of law and justice. In his most recent book, The Jungle Grows Back, Robert Kagan warns us not to allow the creeping vines to grow anew. We need the rule of law, and not rule by law.
Madam Vice President, distinguished delegates, Your Excellencies,

For several years now, there has been a downward trend in the area of freedom, human rights and democracy. It’s hardly news when I point to the general crisis affecting multilateralism A crisis that extends from climate to disarmament, and from trade to this body’s remit: human rights.

Such a crisis demands that we reflect on where we stand.
That we ask ourselves: who are we here for? Do we have the public’s support? Are we truly serving their interests? Are we listening to the right voices? And are we also the voice of the voiceless? Do we truly represent humanity? Are we holding violators to account?
In that spirit, I would like today to underline the most important guiding principles for the Human Rights Council as a whole, and for an individual member State that hopes to take up a seat anew on the Council.

Let me assure you of the following points:
-    The Netherlands – like the majority of member states, is pleased to say – is committed to making the system better and stronger. A rules-based international order is of great importance to a small open trading nation such as the Netherlands.
-    But there is more. The Netherlands will be a reliable partner, respecting human rights at home, and practising what we preach. As we did during our recent term on the Security Council of the United Nations where we did our utmost to respect and uphold, and promote universal rights.
-    We need to respond and act, for example in Syria, Myanmar, South Sudan and Yemen.
-    The Netherlands believes that when human rights violations are committed, we need to respond.
-    We also believe that everyone should be represented here. We are pressing for more representative, more universal participation. To date, only half of the UN member states have seat or have held a seat on this Council. We believe that every country should have the chance to serve, and we will work to that end.
-    The Human Rights Council is doing good work – but there is room for improvement. The Netherlands believes that the Council’s work is important, therefore we will join forces with others to facilitate discussion in Geneva on ways of making it stronger and more effective. By adopting less resolutions and focussing on the most important issues, for example.
-    What is more, we want to be transparent about our principles. This is why  I stand before you today. Human rights are not served by double agendas. You can count on us, and you can hold us to account.

These are all crucial points of departure. Especially at this time in our history. A time when, unfortunately, the number of ‘free’ countries is falling once again. A time of shrinking space for civil society, growing surveillance and manipulation of opinion, and increasing threats to journalists. To name but a few examples.
A time, also, when security and stability often serve as pretexts for restricting human rights in a false dichotomy. But as I said, there is no ‘pause button’ for human rights. Not for the sake of the economy, nor for the sake of security.. This lies at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals. Each individual has the right to live in dignity and freedom and noone should be left behind. Freedom spurs empowerment and inclusive sustainable development.

The Netherlands will definitely do its part, pursuing an active policy on human rights.  
Internationally, my government has made more funding available to promote and protect human rights, in particular for the freedom of  belief and religion– which includes the freedom not to believe – and equal rights for women and girls, and LGBTI people. We are working to enhance the safety of journalists and to ensure that human rights defenders can continue their valuable work.
We’re also engaging with the private sector. We have concluded agreements with several Dutch business sectors, setting out how they will put their responsibility into practice, especially in their foreign operations. Fortunately, more and more companies are starting to recognise, learn and adapt, and apply their viewpoint that they have a responsibility and an interest here.

We build coalitions and engage those who have a different view.
This is and will be our contribution to the human rights agenda we cherish so deeply.
My plea today is for the power of principles.  For humanity’s plea to law to be heard. And for power to continue to pay its tribute to reason.
And for ‘humanity’ to be at the front of all of our minds, when it comes to ‘human rights’.

Thank you.