Speech 'Speak Truth to Power'

Weblogbericht | 27-01-2014

Geschreven door Wim Geerts.

Op 21 en 22 januari organiseerden het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, Justitia et Pax en Human Security Collective de internationale conferentie 'Speak Truth to Power' met en over mensenrechtenverdedigers. Wim Geerts hield de slottoespraak.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our Foreign Minister was supposed to address you right now. You’ll have to do with me, because he is in Montreux, where international negotiations are starting to try to end the flagrant human rights violations taking place in Syria.

And just looking at the case of Syria, it shows how relevant the title of this seminar is: “Speak truth to power”.

Only recently our Minister visited Cuba. During that visit we also discussed human rights. Not everybody was convinced of the importance of a visit to Cuba, but I strongly believe in engagement instead of isolation.

Last week, we supported a debate with a large group of Syrian women, who will participate in these peace talks. These women are of crucial importance to enhance the process. The Netherlands therefore strongly promotes their participation in the talks. These courageous women are an example of the need to speak truth to power. And that is what many of you here today are doing. Speaking up to the authorities in your country, fighting for democracy, for justice and for human rights. And I respect and admire you for that.

On a personal note, I took human rights as a minor in my studies. I have been in the public service for 25 years, where this topic was always one of my main interests.  Human rights is what makes me tick. Each and every day. Everywhere, at any time.

Let me quote mrs. Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders who said: “It is not easy being a human rights defender; in too many countries it is dangerous, plain dangerous.”

I´m thinking of journalists,  everywhere in the world. Speaking truth to power cost them more lives the past years than ever before. I am thinking of some of the great people we met through our Shelter City project and who are here today.

Courage is what it takes. In many parts of the world human rights defenders are falsely accused, or unfairly convicted. They are threatened, tortured or even executed. And there seems to be a negative trend. Democratization processes did not take flight as expected. We have actually seen the space for human rights defenders shrink over the years.

In some countries we see systemic intimidation of human rights defenders. Laws are created to silence human rights defenders which have a numbing effect on their freedom of speech and their ability to continue their activities.

This intimidation can result in extreme situations. In different countries journalists and bloggers are publicly shamed for publishing investigative stories in which they expose corruption by the existing powers. Unfortunately, people in power are willing to go far to silence critical voices.  This makes me think of the events on the central square in Kiev today.

Another example is the problems NGOs face because of legislation that prvents them from raising funds. Some countries presume that funding coming from abroad might turn NGOs into foreign agents or traitors. Their access to funds from abroad is restricted. This curbs their right to freedom of association and their efforts to protect human rights.

What can we do about this situation as an international community, is one of the questions we have been looking at these past days. Back in 1998, we committed to protect human rights defenders with the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. It states that all individuals, groups and organs of society have the right and the responsibility to promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The EU has followed up on this commitment with the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders in 2004. These guidelines are meant to offer guidance on how to implement human rights obligations for our diplomats in the field. With the10th anniversary of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders coming up, it is a good idea to look back. For this reason we invited you all to evaluate what we can do together to assist people on the ground.

It is with these challenges in mind that we decided to focus on human rights defenders as one of the central priorities in our Dutch human rights policy. 

The Netherlands wishes to address these challenges by supporting human rights defenders in various ways:

  • by offering shelter for those who need to temporarily get out of the dangerous conditions they face every day.
  • by working with our EU colleagues
  • by devoting the necessary financial means to be able to provide training, capacity building and public attention.

Of course, when human rights defenders have to seek shelter, the most favourable and durable option is to support them in their own country or region, so they can continue to act as drivers of change. But when this is not possible, the Dutch Shelter City programme provides a temporary solution. The aim is for them to be safe, to be able to continue their work and to inform others about the situation in their country.

I would like to thank the city of The Hague whole heartedly for participating in this important initiative. For being the first Shelter city! The Hague is renowned as the legal capital of the world, the city of peace and justice, and it has the ambition to be even more for all of its citizens. I am very glad the City Council members are here with us today and I would like to thank you for making this happen. Without your enthusiasm and commitment, together with the hard, hard work of Justitia et Pax,  the shelter city project would not have become a success.

And not only the support of the city’s authorities should be mentioned, the initiative needed the support of the people of The Hague, and indeed got it. One of the criteria we formulated was the establishment of contacts between the Hague citizens and the human rights defenders. This has led to many meetings, for instance with students, media and professionals. It has turned out to be an opportunity for people in the Netherlands to listen to and learn from four extraordinary people.

Last year, we had guests in the Shelter City project from Cuba, Russia, DRC and Sudan. I am glad two of the four that came to The Hague last year are here with us today. First, a family lawyer from Sudan fighting violence against women in her country. And Irene, from Congo, also a lawyer, who is now working for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was invaluable to directly hear your experiences and learn from you for future exchanges.

The Hague was the first Shelter City in The Netherlands, but we are very glad with the new addition of Middelburg. We hope to be able to host up to ten human rights defenders annually over the course of the next three years. The municipalities of The Hague and Middelburg have already agreed to provide temporary homes for human rights defenders and we hope other interested municipalities will follow soon.

A 2012 mapping of the EU showed there are 200 temporary shelters provided yearly in the EU member states. This is a significant amount, but does not meet all demands. The Netherlands therefore feels strongly there would be merit in further expanding the initiative and exchanging best practices. I hope that the participants in the seminar will be able to use the positive experiences with our Shelter City programme to make various cities across the EU enthusiastic about becoming a Shelter City as well.

The Netherlands also draws attention to the position of human rights defenders in bilateral contacts, in the UN Human Rights Council and in political dialogues.

Our annual award, the Human Rights Tulip, was awarded this year to Aahung, a Pakistani organisation promoting and protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights. And it is good to hear that this has given her initiative a boost in Pakistan.

In addition, the Netherlands supports capacity-building and training for human rights defenders and their organisations through our embassies. Many of our embassies have their own Human Rights Funds. We find being able to support grass roots human rights organizations of crucial importance. Diplomacy and funding is not enough. We need to speak up for freedom.

As part of International Human Rights Day, on the 10th of December embassies around the world are asked to highlight the important role of human rights defenders, to organise events, roundtables for journalists, or sometimes closed sessions for LGBT organisations, when having a public meeting is too dangerous.

But we cannot do this alone. Speaking with one European voice is of course more powerful. Strong, concerted EU action is crucial, with EU delegations and member state embassies coordinating their activities in the country concerned.

The Guidelines on human rights defenders assist these diplomats in their approach to human rights defenders. The EU Guidelines need to be duly and fully implemented. To this end we are working on a toolbox which provides practical guidance on how to implement the guidelines for our colleagues on the ground. I hope this will provide a new incentive to EU delegations across the world to provide protection and support to human rights defenders. Or as one of the seminar attendants stated it: “we need to focus more on people, less on paper”.

It was very good to be able to discuss the effectiveness of our EU actions. I am glad to present the following recommendations coming out of the seminar:

  • Diplomats and Human rights defenders often share the same goals. We need to work more as a team, share information, and keep each other informed of actions undertaken and on relevant developments.
  • Important to ask human rights defenders what their needs are and try to facilitate those individual needs, financially and through dialogue and networking. Long term funding and commitment are needed.
  • WE should not only focus on bigger organisations, but be accessible also for individuals and grass roots.
  • Silent diplomacy works, but sometimes visibility is more effective and public attention provides security. An example: it can be important to attend court cases; just being present can already have a big effect.
  • EU delegations and member states should set up local implementation strategies and monitor progress
  • The EU Guidelines are as good as the people working on it, but we have to make it less dependent of individual committed diplomats. We need more people, not more paper.
  • Shrinking space of human rights defenders should be at the centre of our work. In all areas of our work, not just human rights. For example trade, security policy also need to guard and not infringe on the space of human rights defenders.
  • Restrictions faced by NGOs to receive financing from abroad should be addressed at various levels. EU will continue to look for ways to finance HRDs directly without putting them in danger.
  • Awareness on digital security among HRDs and among EU diplomats on their communication with HRDs should be raised. For example by offering basic training.
  • Temporary shelter can be of the utmost importance to human rights defenders. We would like to see if we can take the Shelter City programme to a next level within the EU.
  • The relationship between business, trade and human rights was often mentioned. Trade should be made more human rights oriented. The Netherlands has just published the Dutch Action Plan on Business and Human Rights and we will now start implementing it.

As the internet and mobile communications have become part of our everyday lives, their role in the act of speaking truth to power has become central. Yet internet freedom is often denied around the globe, journalists and ordinary citizens are routinely arrested because of their activities online.​

In the past two days we discussed possibilities to enhance digital security. Human rights defenders should themselves take measures necessary for their protection. A lot of research is being done on encryption technology, secure email exchanges etc. We should try to make those new techniques more widely available.

An example of what we do: The Netherlands started a partnership, a club of countries, called the Freedom Online Coalition to make sure that we keep investing in an open, safe and free internet, keeping regulations to a minimum. We also set up a multi-donor Fund, the Digital defenders partnership. It focuses on supporting people who are fighting for freedom in cyberspace with their activities, and to protect them against the pressure of governments.

With regard to digital security the main recommendations from the meeting were:
-  Invest in digital security for human rights defenders, but it has to be tailor-made.

- To invest in digital security training for embassies.
- To provide a safe environment for free speech and digital access at embassies.

As Mahatma Ghandi once declared: “a small body of determined spirits, fired by unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”. We are grateful we had the opportunity to host a group of such determined spirits at the ministry of Foreign Affairs these past two days.

I truly hope this meeting has offered an opportunity to be both empowered and inspired by each other. I would like to thank our partners Justitia et Pax and Human Sceurity Collective for our joint effort.

We will follow-up on this seminar by informing our EU colleagues that were not present here today. We will send them and the special rapporteur on human rights defenders the recommendations coming out of our meeting. The Dutch human rights ambassador will also brief the EU Special Representative on Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, on the outcomes. With the celebration of 10 years of the EU guidelines later this year in Brussels, we will discuss how we can improve their implementation in practice.

I promise that the Netherlands will keep playing its part in defending human rights around the globe, and defending individuals like you, who stand up and speak out. I hope you will feel the strength of our support and commitment. And after this conference, when you leave this building and go home to continue your work, know that you are not – and never will be – alone.

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