Speech by Verhagen at OSCE celebrating 15 years of a High Commissioner on National Minorities

Ambassador Vollebaek, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to be here tonight to commemorate the establishment, fifteen years ago, of the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities. I want to thank Ambassador Vollebaek for organising this reception in this beautiful 17th-century residence, which bears the name of the famous Dutch statesman Johan de Witt, who lived here for a time.

An anniversary is a time to reflect on the past and to anticipate the future. I would like to start by paying tribute to the current High Commissioner, Ambassador Vollebaek, and his efforts to prevent conflicts related to the position of national minorities, particularly in Kosovo and Turkmenistan. He has also been a great advocate of linguistic rights for national minorities.

I would further like to honour the work of Ambassador Vollebaek’s predecessors, Rolf Ekéus and Max van der Stoel, both of whom have done a great deal to establish the office as a remarkable seat of multilateral preventive diplomacy. They have succeeded in creating a broad consensus on the importance of conflict prevention, and of protecting minorities, to peace and security in the OSCE region.

Not only the High Commissioner himself, but all those who work at his office have contributed greatly to improving the lives of people in the OSCE region. Positive developments in various OSCE-countries are a testament to their achievements. I applaud everyone here who has played his or her part in promoting peaceful relations and stability in the region – both now and over the past fifteen years.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In July 1992, the OSCE heads of state and government signed the Helsinki Document The Challenges of Change. In so doing they approved the creation of new instruments for conflict prevention and crisis management, of which the most important was the post of High Commissioner on National Minorities. Traditionally, internal affairs – including those concerning minorities – had always been regarded as matters of state sovereignty. The establishment of the office of the High Commissioner was an important step forward for multilateral conflict prevention as a means of improving security. It has enabled greater scrutiny of states’ actions where the position of national minorities and the related potential for conflict are concerned.

The events of the early 1990s – when minority-related ethnic violence broke out in the former Yugoslavia – required that the international community find the political will to challenge traditional concepts of state sovereignty.

Promoting human rights is a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy, and the protection of minorities is an important pillar of our human rights strategy. In this respect especially, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the High Commissioner’s work. Too often, human rights violations are marked by intolerance and discrimination against minorities, jeopardising peace and stability in the OSCE region.

The work of the High Commissioner is about international conflict prevention in a minority-related context in the OSCE region. It is the Commissioner’s task to identify smouldering ethnic tensions and help resolve them by engaging in a constructive dialogue, with both the governments and minorities involved. A very challenging task, which requires tireless dedication, patience, a great sense of timing, independence, impartiality, a wealth of experience and first-class mediating and negotiating skills.

Despite your fifteen years of outstanding work, there are still national minorities in the OSCE region that require our undivided attention. The recent conflict in Georgia is proof of that. In October the High Commissioner and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights sent a team of experts to Georgia to assess the human rights and minorities situation in the areas affected by the recent armed conflict. Another cause for concern is the situation of the Roma population, generally acknowledged as the most marginalised minority in Europe. When it comes to security and income, they are simply being left behind.

I wholeheartedly welcome the High Commissioner’s recent Bolzano/Bozen recommendations on how to address national minorities issues in the context of inter-state relations. We should all bear in mind his point that national minorities need not be a source of conflict in inter-state relations. On the contrary, they can serve as bridges between states.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking ahead to the future, I would encourage you to continue your excellent work protecting the rights of national minorities. It is crucially important work, for everyone should be able to enjoy the same protection under the international human rights system. I can assure you that the Netherlands will continue to support the High Commissioner’s office in its efforts to create stable, democratic, prosperous, peaceful and open societies. Societies in which all citizens – including national minorities – are treated equally. And where human rights and tolerance prevail.

Thank you.