Speech by Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie on 10 years Shelter City

Opening speech of the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, Bahia Tahzib-Lie on the 10th Anniversary of the Dutch Shelter City Program. The Hague, 21 April 2022.

Good afternoon, everyone.

I am delighted to have the honor to open this special event dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Dutch Shelter City program. I am thrilled that we are marking this occasion in a Shelter City. The Hague was the first city to take part in the inspiring program.

This 10th anniversary deserves our full attention. It is too special to let it pass unnoticed. Especially because it is an opportunity to shine a light on the indispensable role of human rights defenders around the world. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate their courage, strength and achievements.

In addition, it is an occasion to counter the negative narratives that seek to undermine their crucial work and discourage them and others from continuing their human rights activism.

That is why I am delighted to be here to highlight the significance of the Shelter City program and its dedicated support to human rights defenders at risk. It is wonderful to see so many people joining for this occasion. Thank you all for being here.

I would like to extend a very warm and special welcome to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Ms. Mary Lawlor. Ms. Lawlor is a deeply committed global defender of human rights defenders at risk. She is the founder of Front Line Defenders. Welcome to The Hague, Mary. It is very meaningful to have you in our midst today.

Human rights matter, at all times, both online and offline. Human rights apply to everyone, no matter who they are
or where they come from. Under no circumstances should our human rights be taken away from us, or from anybody else. To deny people their human rights is to rob them of their humanity. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says it all: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

So it is deeply troubling that human rights are under tremendous pressure all over the world. Especially – but certainly not only – in countries with authoritarian regimes. The power of repression is immense. Yet so is the strength and courage of human rights defenders. They are fearless drivers of change and meaningful impact on people’s lives. Their work is sorely needed because human rights enable us to bring out the best in ourselves and the world. Human rights ensure stability and build solidarity. And human rights promote diversity, inclusion, belonging and sustainable development.

Human rights defenders inspire me through their remarkable bravery and determination to achieve human rights for all. I am particularly amazed how they keep their faith in humanity. For many people, human rights defenders are a source of hope, change and inspiration.

It is thus extremely alarming that more and more of them are being intimidated (online and off), threatened and even murdered. Attacks on human rights defenders can have a chilling effect on their peers.

That is why the Dutch government supports human rights defenders: so they can do their work safely and effectively. Let me give you some examples.

We work to ensure that the safety and position of human rights defenders are high on the agenda of international organizations, such as the European Union and United Nations. Our embassies monitor the trials of human rights defenders and provide them with safe spaces to meet. In addition, we work with partner organizations to provide emergency assistance, temporary relocation, training and guidance for human rights defenders who are at risk in their home countries.

The Dutch Shelter City program is an excellent example. This empowering program is significant for the sustainability of the work of (participating) human rights defenders. Twenty-one cities are currently taking part in this Dutch initiative: thirteen Dutch cities and eight cities in a range of other countries.

Over the past ten years, more than 400 human rights defenders from all over the world have been offered a safe and inspiring space in these cities. A short stay in a Shelter City gives them renewed energy, new skills and increased determination to continue their activism back home. Being in a safe and supportive space is scarcely imaginable for some human rights defenders.

The Shelter City program is also constantly evolving. For example, in 2021, a new project was established to offer extra temporary relocation opportunities for journalists at risk. And this year, the possibility of family relocation has been introduced.

I am proud of the successful and unique partnership between the organization Justice and Peace Netherlands, the participating cities, local organizations, and my own ministry. This partnership is truly inspiring and enriching. Through the Shelter City program, the Netherlands is making a real difference by supporting threatened human rights defenders.

This inspired me to go on a tour of the Dutch Shelter Cities to meet human rights defenders during the brief time that they spend in a shelter city. And above all, to listen to these brave people. Their personal stories matter and can change matters. Their human stories can also help us better understand what they have been through, and what they need to be able to create change for themselves and others.

Even more importantly, many of them have shared their experiences with people in the Netherlands. So people here could hear about their activism, the challenges they face back home, and what a stay in a shelter city means to them.

Defenders like Mojalifa, a human rights activist from Zimbabwe. Moja, as his friends call him, is a cheerful man, who often wears a rainbow-colored scarf around his neck. He told me that he is in great danger in his native country. Both because of his LGBTIQ+ 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 rejuvenated to continue his work, despite the danger it involves.

And then there is 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 share the story of Guliaim, a Kyrgyz women rights activist. With three friends, Guliaim initiated marches to promote the equal rights for women. This is how many women in her country learned about the concept of feminism and the right to demand change. But these events also triggered hate speech, aggression and even attacks on women.

So Guliaim, too, was grateful for the safe breathing space that Shelter City Nijmegen provided. At the same time, she looked forward to continuing her mission – defending women’s equal rights – with renewed strength back in Kyrgyzstan. As she says: ‘We have [these rights], let’s take them, let’s not lose them.’

The experiences that Shelter City guests Moja, David and Guliaim shared with people in this country made many of their listeners appreciate the significance and necessity of the work of human rights defenders. And how instrumental the Shelter City program is for the sustainability of their work.

I therefore hope this anniversary will inspire many more cities in the world to join the engaging Dutch Shelter City program or similar programs. Cities can play a significant role in supporting human rights defenders at risk and showing solidarity with them.

To conclude I’d like to express my profound gratitude to everyone at Justice & Peace Netherlands and the local organizations involved for their passionate and dedicated work in protecting and empowering human rights defenders. Your work is powerfully uplifting and makes a difference in the lives of many.

And to all human rights defenders I want to say: Your remarkable bravery, strength and resilience are truly inspirational. Thank you for working tirelessly to protect human rights, and being a force for positive change in the lives of so many.