Koenders sounds alarm bell in UN Human Rights Council: ‘We must do our utmost to turn the tide’

Speaking at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today, foreign minister Bert Koenders issued a call for action: ‘The time in which we live is marked by human rights violations on a massive scale,’ he said. ‘Millions of people lack any form of protection. Perpetrators walk free. Opposition leaders fear for their lives in many countries. We need to realise that things are at a historic low. The murder of Boris Nemtsov last Friday is still fresh in our minds. All around the world, large-scale violations must serve as a wake-up call. This is about prevention, protection and prosecution.’

‘Every day we are confronted with serious human rights violations,’ Mr Koenders went on to say. ‘Syria, Iraq and Libya are some of the most disturbing examples, but unfortunately, there are many other places around the world where similar things are happening. Power and human rights can be an uneasy combination. Every human rights violation is one too many. It is up to us to turn the tide and take a stand for human dignity.’

The Netherlands is a member of the Human Rights Council for the 2015-2017 term. The Council consists of 47 countries from all parts of the world. During the current four-week session, the Council will discuss the human rights situation in various places, denounce violations and draw up recommendations. ‘The Netherlands has long fought for universal values and freedoms. We seek to work with other countries and coalitions to make real progress,’ the minister said.

‘The Human Rights Council is an essential platform for taking decisions and engaging in debate on how best to protect human rights,’ Mr Koenders remarked. ‘Victims of human rights violations and human rights defenders must also have the opportunity to tell their stories before the Council.’ Mr Koenders also cited the important role played by journalists: ‘They must be given the freedom to report on violations, without being threatened.’ According to the minister, progress has already been made in a number of areas: ‘Female genital mutilation and child labour, for example, are starting to decline after being addressed within the UN. But on the other hand, there are also major new challenges that put me in a pessimistic frame of mind.’

In his speech today Mr Koenders emphasised that human rights are universal and require an ongoing commitment. ‘Everyone has the same human rights, wherever in the world they may live. But we need to do more than express positive sentiments and good intentions. We can’t allow our work to become nothing more than a ritual dance. This doesn’t do anything for victims – or for humanity as a whole. To truly change things, we need an ongoing dialogue marked by candour and honesty. This is the only way we can really work together and genuinely help to stamp out violations.’

‘There are major challenges before us, but the Human Rights Council has a number of good instruments at its disposal,’ Mr Koenders pointed out. ‘The High Commissioner for Human Rights, investigative commissions and special rapporteurs denounce human rights violations and exert pressure on countries where such violations are taking place. They must be able to operate independently and have adequate resources to do their job.’ While in Geneva, Mr Koenders also spoke with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The Netherlands is the fifth-largest donor to his office, with a contribution of €7.5 million. These funds are used, among other things, for financing investigations of human rights violations and conducting training courses to promote the observance of human rights. As Mr Koenders said, ‘The Netherlands attaches great importance to the independent position of the UN High Commissioner. This independence means he can continue to make active and objective pronouncements on violations, wherever in the world they may occur. It also allows him to continue pursuing other important goals, such as eliminating the death penalty and protecting human rights defenders and civilians in conflict zones.’