Education lasts a lifetime: let’s give human rights a greater place in the classroom

Max van der Stoel Human Rights Lecture by Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, 10 December 2021, The Hague.

Good afternoon everyone.

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

It’s great to be connected online to so many of you for this special event dedicated to International Human Rights Day.

Right now I’m speaking from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague.

A ministry that Max van der Stoel headed twice, in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties.

That was years before I joined the ministry.

Yet his influence can still be felt today.

Max van der Stoel was the first foreign minister to place human rights at the core of Dutch foreign policy – a priority which I’m proud to say has been upheld ever since.

It is therefore a great honour for me to deliver today’s lecture and pay tribute to this legendary figure – a human rights champion for so many people around the world.

Three decades ago, I had the special privilege of working with Max van der Stoel when he was a State Councillor at the Dutch Council of State.

In fact, he was the person who motivated me to try and make a difference on human rights by pursuing a diplomatic career.

I made that decision 25 years ago, and I’ve never regretted it.

Because as a diplomat, I have so many opportunities to help improve observance of human rights and to fight injustice all around the world.

I have learned that this requires many different approaches.

As Max van der Stoel used to say:

‘There is no fixed recipe for government action to combat violations of human rights. Because those violations are different in nature. Sometimes you have to use quiet diplomacy, working behind the scenes. Other times, you need to protest or apply heavy pressure.’

Since September 2019 I have been working as the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, striving to improve the human rights situation worldwide.

You might think I spend all my time responding to human right violations. But my work involves much more than that.

An essential part of my job is actually going out and talking to civil society organisations, human rights defenders, human rights victims and young people.

The stories that are shared during these interactions can sometimes be distressing.

But listening to other people’s experiences is a necessary eye-opener, if we want to better understand the human rights challenges they face.

And the stories people tell bring their determination and courage to light.

These stories can be so moving. And they’re important in raising awareness about the meaning of human rights, both close to home and further afield.

What’s more, these stories inspire people, especially young people, to make sure they know their rights. They empower them to make human rights part of their daily lives.

So that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today: storytelling, and giving human rights a greater place in the classroom.

Distinguished guests,

When I was 16 years old, I watched a music video by a Canadian music artist that has affected me ever since.

It was about the real-life story of a brave Iranian girl.

Her name was Mona Mahmunizhad. 

You can see her photograph on your screen.

Mona was a young, dedicated high school student, with beautiful green eyes and long dark brown hair.

She, too, was 16 at the time.

One evening in October 1982, she was studying in her room for an English test when, suddenly, four armed Revolutionary Guards entered her family home.

The Guards blindfolded her and took her to prison, by force, where she was subjected to interrogation and verbal abuse, for hours on end.

All because of her religion – the Bahá’í faith.

The Guards threatened to kill her if she did not renounce her faith.

But Mona stood firm and stayed true to her beliefs.

Eight months later, in June 1983, the prison guards took her, together with nine other Bahá’í women, by bus to a nearby field.

One by one, the women were hanged.

After Mona’s execution, reports emerged of how she had maintained her dignity to the very end.

She was the last to be hanged. When her time came, she put the noose around her own neck, kissed the rope and smiled in a final act of resistance.

This scene, portrayed in the music video, hit me hard.

The people who had captured and tortured her did not manage to break her.

This was a triumph of the human spirit, in the face of unimaginable cruelty.

I’m telling you about Mona because her story left a permanent impression on me. Not least because we were the same age, and shared the same religion.

This made me realise how fortunate I was to grow up in the Netherlands.

In a democratic country where we can openly express how we feel, what we believe in, and what we stand for.

How very different Mona’s situation was.

She couldn’t speak out freely, practise her religion or develop her full potential.

Mona was essentially deprived of her freedoms.

Yet what’s so inspiring is that she never lost her inner strength, her ability to stand up for her beliefs. She never gave up hope.

To me, Mona’s story was a lesson about courage and dignity.

I changed, in a way, after hearing about Mona.

Her story had made me aware that freedom should never be taken for granted.

This is why I began to find human rights and justice so compelling.

Why I decided to study law, and to write my doctoral thesis on freedom of religion and belief.

And my passion for human rights and my respect for human rights defenders has only grown since then.

From this experience, I learned how important it is to listen to and share the personal stories of courageous people who stand up for human rights.

Their stories show, at individual level, how human rights are under pressure all over the world.

They give us insight into how some countries, especially those with authoritarian regimes, look to each other to see how they can silence their critics effectively.

By cutting off the internet. Or by attacking journalists and human rights defenders, either physically or online. 

Listening to their stories also helps us realise how fragile our own human rights are.

They remind us that we ourselves could potentially be the human rights victims of tomorrow.

It could be me.

It could be you.             

It could be any of us…

being intimidated, threatened, arrested, beaten or tortured, or having our families targeted.

Realising this can make us even more committed to achieving change for others.

After all, as John P. Kotter, a professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, aptly said:

‘We learn best – and change – from hearing stories that strike a chord within us.’

That is so true. That is the power of storytelling.

At the same time, stories also fill us with hope.

They show us that people whose rights are violated still believe in humanity.

No matter how great the obstacles they face.

Norma Librada Ledezma, a Mexican whom I met at the UN in Geneva, told me about how she became a human rights activist after the disappearance and cold-blooded murder of her innocent daughter Paloma.  

I could see and feel the pain and grief in her eyes.

At that time her daughter was the same age as my eldest daughter: 16 years old.

It made me wonder: ‘What would I have done in her situation?’

I’m not sure.

But do you know what Norma did?

She founded the organisation Justice for Our Daughters.

Because she knew all too well that her daughter’s death was not an isolated case in Mexico.

According to the UN, around 10 women are killed in Mexico every day.

That’s why Norma decided to offer people legal advice and support.

In cases of murder, trafficking and kidnapping of women.

So far she has supported over 200 investigations into cases of feminicide and disappearances.

She has stayed strong in the face of adversity, saying:

‘The justice that my daughter didn’t get, along with all those women and girls… I don’t think it is something I’ll be able to see with my own eyes.

‘Yet I will fight,’ she said.

‘I will continue fighting despite my situation, despite the threats.

‘For a life of freedom. For a world of freedom. And for a world in which women can live free.’

Precisely because of the stories of human rights defenders like Norma, I’m convinced that fighting for human rights will never become a thing of the past.

Human freedom is something that can never be permanently repressed, controlled or restrained.

Because, despite their terrible experiences, human rights defenders keep their faith in humanity, and continue their struggle to achieve human rights.

They continue to believe that the norms of human rights are shared and supported by most people around the world.

Distinguished guests,

We need opportunities to listen to the stories of courageous people who are fighting for human rights under difficult conditions.

And how special would it be to interact with them directly?

So they can share with us in person what they’ve been through, how they deal with the challenges they face, and what they need to be able to create change for others.

But where can we meet them, and listen to their powerful stories?

We have one possibility through the Dutch Shelter City programme, which gives weary human rights defenders a chance to take a rejuvenating break in another country.

So we can meet them during the brief time that they spend in a shelter city.

Over the past nine years, more than 300 human rights defenders have been given temporary accommodation, training and security in a shelter city.

Twenty cities are now taking part in this initiative by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the organisation Justice and Peace Netherlands:

twelve Dutch cities and eight cities in a range of other countries.

I’ve been fortunate to meet many of these people: activists, scholars, artists, political figures, journalists and lawyers.

Even more importantly, many of them have shared their stories with people in the Netherlands, including many students.

So people could hear about their activism and the challenges they face back home … 

and hear what their stay in a shelter city means to the human rights defenders.

Defenders like Mojalifa, a human rights activist from Zimbabwe who stayed for a while in Tilburg. 

Moja, as his friends call him, is a cheerful man, who often wears a rainbow-coloured scarf around his neck.

He told me that he is in great danger in his native country. Both because of his LGBTI activism and because he is gay. 

 ‘I have worked with people who disappeared overnight,’ Moja has said.

‘I always wonder when they will come for me.’

He continued, however:

‘But we do work that needs to be done. It is like an army going to the battlefield. Seeing countries like the Netherlands feeds us with hope.’

Following his time in Shelter City Tilburg, Moja was able to return home with renewed energy and determination to continue his work, despite the danger it involves.

And then there’s David, a human rights activist defending the families of missing persons in Mexico.

David constantly needs to be on the lookout for the drug cartels. Because of his support for 120 families whose loved ones are missing.

David has said that being in Shelter City Utrecht – a safe space – is something he could never have imagined as a real possibility.

Experiencing this safety first-hand gave him hope that creating a different, more secure world is possible, and that things can change in his own country, Mexico.

Last but not least, let me tell you the story of Sohail, a Pakistani human rights activist who stayed in Shelter City Zwolle for several months this year. 

Sohail was unjustly imprisoned for ten years, without either a fair trial or a lawyer. He was lucky, because his sister was able in the end to pay enough money to get him released.

But that doesn’t mean he is safe now.

So Sohail, too, was grateful for the breathing space that the Netherlands provided. At the same time, he looked forward to continuing his mission – defending prisoners’ rights – with renewed strength back in Pakistan.

As he says: ‘I am here to heal myself and to help others.’   

The experiences that Moja, David and Sohail shared with people in the Netherlands made many of their listeners, especially young listeners, appreciate the significance and necessity of the work that these activists do back home.

This shows how human rights defenders’ stories can foster dialogue between people who might not normally cross paths.

This is why, in my own work and especially in my outreach to young people, I use storytelling to encourage dialogue on human rights issues.

Especially through film, because visualisation is so effective at helping us understand a reality very different from our own and empathise with the people who live it.

For example, when I, as a teenager, watched the music video on Mona, it allowed me to picture the brutality of her execution – and at the same time to comprehend her admirable, resolute courage.

That’s why I use the power of storytelling through film now as a way of reaching people, especially students.

Together with Nadja Houben, an art producer and director of the foundation Human Rights in the Picture, I recently visited a series of universities in the Netherlands, including of course Tilburg University.

As well as students in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Curaçao and Aruba.

At each event, we used the same formula: we began by watching a human rights documentary with the students, either in person, in hybrid settings or online.

Then we used the documentary to facilitate interactive discussions with the students about their ideas, needs and concerns regarding human rights and justice.

One documentary, for example, is called Out & About.  

It dives into the world of family members of LGBTI people. 

The students get to see fathers and mothers talk about the challenges they face as parents of a gay child.

Like the Kenyan mother Josephine, who explains how she will prepare her own extended family to accept the coming out of her daughter Gigi.

Or Elena, a mother in Russia, who reveals the big crisis she faces because her son Alex feels threatened by the homophobia in his country and wants to emigrate.

Usually, at the end of the documentary, the whole class is silent for a while.

Waiting to see who will speak first, to reflect on what they’ve just seen and heard.

Then, little by little, the students start opening up.

To Nadja and me, but most importantly to each other.

At each event, the students impressed us with their openness and courage.

For instance, some students talked about how they viewed influencers like Nikkie de Jager, a Dutch beauty vlogger and transgender woman, as role models. Inspiring them to be who they want to be.

At one university, several students showed support when they found out one of them was gay. Some placed a hand on the fellow student’s shoulder. Others wept when hearing about their awful experiences.

In the discussion at one European country’s university, students were particularly worried about their government’s hateful rhetoric towards LGBTI people.

Yet despite these concerns, one of the students courageously revealed to his classmates that he is in fact gay.

He asked: ‘When did it become a bad thing not to be exactly the same as everybody else?’

So, through stories that strike a chord with them, and especially through documentaries, we can give human rights more meaning to young people.

And through dialogue, we can encourage these young people to think deeply about human rights in their daily lives and those of others.

Distinguished guests,

The American philanthropist George E. Jonas once said:
‘Others see the child of today. We see a leader of tomorrow’.

I strongly agree with his vision.

That’s why I believe schools are key in raising awareness about human rights.

Back when I first joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was asked to design a colourful poster with an illustration for each article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These posters were hung in schools across the country, to raise awareness among children and young people about their human rights and potential.

That was 23 years ago.

Yet a recent UNICEF poll of children in the Netherlands showed that 51 per cent of them could not name one human right.

Thirteen-year-old Quinty, for instance, said:

‘I think I once had a lesson about it in history. Then something was said about human rights.’

And 14-year-old Rowen commented:

‘We did have a lesson about human rights, but I don’t really remember it.’

This lack of human rights literacy among children is alarming.

If young people are not aware of their rights and other people’s rights in society, how can we expect them to stand up for human rights?

Let alone make a difference in their neighbourhoods or cities, not to mention other countries.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘universal human rights begin [i]n small places, close to home’.

And let’s not forget that young people are especially good at spreading knowledge, skills and habits to others.

They will take what they’ve learned from their schools and playgrounds into their homes and beyond: into their communities and societies as a whole.

Making their societies part of a global human rights community.

That is why I’d like to call on you all today: go back to school!

Let’s be more active in bringing human rights into the classroom.

So we can invest more in young people’s knowledge, and work together to increase human rights literacy.

We can do that on a day like today: International Human Rights Day, the 10th of December.

But I think it would be even better for us all to visit schools and universities during a special, dedicated week, culminating on International Human Rights Day.

We could turn this human rights awareness week into a national or even global #HumanRightsWeek.

And repeat the campaign every year.

So we can truly start a chain reaction, and inspire more and more people to join in.

In the Netherlands and around the world.

Just as Global Money Week was successfully introduced nine years ago in every region of the world.

A week every year when professionals go back to school to make children more financially aware, and teach them the skills, attitudes and behaviours they need to make sound financial decisions.

Since its inception, Global Money Week has reached over 53 million children and young people in 176 countries worldwide.

So why not duplicate the success of Global Money Week, for human rights?

By launching a Global Human Rights Week?

A week in which we all participate:

Academics, activists, practitioners, judges, lawyers, parliamentarians, diplomats, students …

Anyone who is passionate about human rights.

Wouldn’t #HumanRightsWeek be a refreshing and inspiring opportunity for interactive dialogue with children and young people on human rights issues?

To listen to their ideas and aspirations about human rights, and learn about their concerns, needs and vulnerabilities?

Just as I experienced on my tour of universities.

These interactions can stick with them for the rest of their lives, and with us.

We can tell children, for instance, about the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and talk with them about what these rights mean in their lives.

We could discuss one or more rights in greater detail, and in particular why these rights are important for them and everyone they love.

We could talk about situations where children have seen or heard people enjoy, deny or demand human rights.

Or we could ask if they ever have stood up for their rights, or the rights of others.

There are so many possibilities.

Above all, I’d like to encourage everyone to share impactful stories with young people.

We can use our own stories.  

Or the stories and experiences of courageous human rights defenders, whose lives are under threat, of inspiring human rights icons, and of vulnerable people in need. 

So we can speak to young people’s hearts and minds, and motivate them to integrate human rights into their thoughts and actions.

We can also share stories by showing students documentaries or plays, followed by discussions.

Or listen to music, or read poetry.

We can be creative in our interactions with young people.

Distinguished guests,

I hope all of you will support my call, and join me in taking part in #HumanRightsWeek next year.

To give a voice to the marginalised among us.

To help raise awareness among young people.

And to make #HumanRightsWeek as big a success as Global Money Week.

This is something we can do for all the brave human beings like Mona who have given their lives for human rights.

For the countless people who continue to show courage and resilience and refuse to lose hope, like Sohail, David, Norma and Mojalifa.

And for all those who have stood up for human rights, like Max van der Stoel.

Because, in a world where human rights are being violated in so many places, both online and offline…

it is never too late for people to realise why human rights matter, and to stand up for those rights – both close to home and further afield.

As long as we all contribute.

So let’s launch #HumanRightsWeek, and all go back to school every year.

Let’s share stories…

and promote the crucial commitment the world made on this day 73 years ago, to the idea that:

 ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’