Speech by Minister Blok at accountability event 'Steps towards justice'

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at a digital event dedicated to fighting impunity, 20 January 2021.

First of all, I would like to say that I am proud to host today’s event together with the International Commission of Jurists.

And of course, I would also like to thank both Ms Brands Kehris, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and Ms Bensouda, ICC Prosecutor, for making time to share their experience and insights, about strengthening the fight against impunity.

Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps you have heard about a young man called Omar Alshogre, who can be seen in the picture on your computer screen, and who’s also with us here today.

Omar is a 25-year-old human rights activist and public speaker, who survived torture in a Syrian prison.

He is now studying Business and International Relations in the United States, at Georgetown University, in Washington DC.

But that’s not the reason I mention him. I mention him because of the horrors he has witnessed.

When Omar was 17 years old, security forces in Syria arrested him for participating in peaceful demonstrations.

He was thrown into a dark, filthy cell, with many other prisoners.

People who were doctors, engineers, teachers, psychologists, economists and lawyers.

They had so little space, they could barely move.

The only way to cope was to kneel, and rest your head on your arms to sleep, and to stand up in shifts, so other prisoners could bend their knees and sleep as well.

Omar and his fellow prisoners often didn’t even dare to whisper to one another.

Because anyone who spoke, would be beaten by the guards.

But that wasn’t even the worst part.

The worst part was the dead bodies in prison, and the fact that Omar was forced to tag them all.

By writing numbers on their forehead, before removing them from their cells.

He also remembers the torture.

The electric shocks, the brutal daily beatings, the time his fingernails were pulled out, the days he was suspended by his wrists from the ceiling, for hours.

And of course, the times the guards would put him in the corridor, just so he could hear the torture of others.

Then he heard people screaming. And begging.

Saying: ‘Please kill me. I’ll tell you whatever you want, but please stop.’

In June 2015 Omar was released, after three years in prison.

Because his mother, who had escaped to Turkey, was able to scrape together enough money to get him out.

She paid a bribe, of twenty thousand US dollars, to a corrupt Syrian police officer.

When Omar got out he was 20 years old. And he was a shadow of the young man he’d once been.

He weighed only 34 kilos, he was barefoot, and he was coughing up blood.

It turned out he had tuberculosis.

In order to get treatment, he first had to cross the border to Turkey.

Soon he joined a wave of refugees, heading for Europe.

A journey that began with a rubber boat.

And a journey that finally took him to Sweden, where he ended up living with a foster mother, and his two surviving brothers.

Since that time, Omar has been seeking justice.

Not only for himself, and for his brothers and cousins who died in prison, but also for the inmates he got to know, and who all died.

Many of them had asked him not to forget them, if he was one day able to escape.

‘Please Omar,’ they’d tell him. ‘If you get out of prison, do something.’

‘Talk about us, so that people will know.’

That’s why, ladies and gentlemen, today Omar is a visible and vocal witness to the atrocities committed in Syria’s prisons.

He has spoken on college campuses, and he has given a TEDx talk.

He has even spoken at the White House, and briefed members of Congress.

And last but not least, Omar has joined other witnesses, victims, activists, and lawyers to wage a legal battle for justice, in the European courts.

‘As long as I am alive,’ Omar now says, ‘I will work to ensure that the people who did this stand in front of a judge, and admit they tortured people.’

And it’s precisely because of brave individuals like Omar, and because of all those other survivors who fled Syria, and who are also sharing their harrowing testimonies, that we - as governments, as NGO’s, as European war crime investigators, and as investigators working for international, independent organisations - can now collect evidence;

Evidence of the nature and magnitude, of the atrocities committed in Syria.

And while there are of course still many more questions than answers, survivors are actually seeing glimmers of hope, for the first time in years.

Because courts in Germany, France and Sweden are now investigating several Syrian individuals.

And a country like the Netherlands, has decided to hold Syria to account.

So that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and the members of his regime - a regime, that is determined to cling to power - will not get away with the horrific crimes they’ve committed, but will be held to account.

It is also why the Netherlands will continue to fully support and cooperate with the International Criminal Court.

Why we continue to support the many NGOs, that work tirelessly to make sure the world knows what’s happening.

Why we run – together with others - UN-mandated fact-finding missions, which are a key step in learning the facts, and laying the groundwork for accountability.

And why we continue to ensure that mechanisms, such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria, but also the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, are sufficiently funded and supported, so they can indeed fulfil their mandate effectively.

For instance, the Netherlands is now again contributing two million euros to investigative teams - mandated by the UN.

Because we know that the road to justice, begins with knowing the truth.

And I hope that today, ladies and gentlemen, we can also collect more ideas and best practices, on how to achieve accountability as effective as possible.

How can different parties cooperate better, for instance?

How can specialists do their jobs? To better collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence?

And how will victims be - or continue to be - at the centre of all our efforts?

I believe only together we can find creative solutions, and strive to make new steps towards justice.

Not only so families can heal, and recover. And not only to make sure people can return to their homeland one day where there is no more terror. At least, not without repercussions…

But also, so we can send a strong message, to all those other perpetrators; People in Syria and elsewhere, who still think they can get away with these crimes.

And that message is:

You will not get away with this.

You will not get away with committing mass atrocities.

We will bring you to justice, and by doing so we will lay the groundwork for lasting peace.

Because peace as an enduring value, can be achieved only when it is based on justice.

All other options are doomed to fail.

So, I ask all of you, let’s get to work!

Let’s show all the victims and survivors, like Omar – and like those people in Myanmar, Yemen, Libya, Venezuela and around the world – not only that we care, but above all, that we want justice for our fellow human beings.

Thank you.