Toespraak minister Kaag bij Human Rights Watch in De Balie
Toespraak van minister Kaag (Buitenlandse Handel en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking). Zij sprak bij de opening van het Human Rights Weekend in Amsterdam op 7 februari 2019. Deze toespraak is alleen beschikbaar in het Engels.
Where do I stand? Where do we stand? When it comes to human rights, this question is more relevant today than it has been for a long time. Sometimes, it takes a bad fall to know where you really stand. And a bad fall, ladies and gentlemen, is what’s taking place. As much as I wish it weren’t true, human rights are under siege. I see 3 trends that are particularly concerning: the crumbling consensus on human rights; the shrinking space in the nexus between technology and human rights; the narrowing down of the concept of democracy. I would like to briefly discuss these with you tonight.
First of all, the consensus on the universality human rights is crumbling. After the Berlin Wall came down, the trend was unmistakably in favour of human rights, rule of law and democracy the way we understood it.
Between 1987 and 2007, the amount of countries classified as “free” by NGO Freedom House shot up. The opposite was true for countries classified “not free”.
In the past 10 years, unfortunately, the number of “free” countries has gone down again. We all know the reports. NGO Civicus is sounding the alarm bell about a shrinking space for civil society, ‘growing surveillance and manipulation of opinion’, and increasing threats to journalists.
This week, Freedom House reports that democracy is in retreat around the world, with 2019 marking the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
And of course, Human Rights Watch, with its reporting standing at the forefront of exposing abuses worldwide: abuses of garment sector workers, migrants, LGBTI youth…
The trend is unmistakably negative. For a long time, however, the consensus remained that upholding human rights was the way to go for countries to get ahead in the world. At the very least, governments would want to be seen to be upholding human rights. Those lagging behind would go at great lengths to explain why, and would want to appear to strive to do better. In short: the norm itself and its universality were not contested.
But this is no longer the rule. Authoritarian governments are no longer making excuses; are no longer striving to do better or trying to be seen to do better. Rather, they are holding up their own models as ‘preferred alternatives’. The narrative that human rights should take a back seat to economic development has been around for a while. According to this storyline, governments can hit the “pause button” on human rights until their countries’ economic development is on track. So the saying goes…
In recent years, due to their economic growth, these countries have gained confidence in this approach. Of course, we recognize that economic development is an important driver for improved well-being of people. But it cannot be separated from human rights. Nor can it be a justification for denying people their civil and political rights, nor, for that matter, their economic, social and cultural rights.
There is no pause button for human rights. Not for economy’s sake. Not for security’s sake. Development is a human right. Freedom spurs inclusive development. It’s as simple as that.
It’s not a coincidence that the Sustainable Development Goals pledge to “leave no one behind”. All too often, economic growth still benefits the ones in power at the expense of the bottom poor and most vulnerable groups in society. How else can we explain that after years of sound economic growth in the region, the Arab Uprising was embraced by so many, and so quickly in 2010? People from across wide spectrum of society rose up to claim their political rights.
This brings me to the second trend that worries me: the nexus between technology and human rights. The Arab Uprising owed a lot to technology, and social media in particular. Technology often is a wonderful source of emancipation, knowledge, a force for good. It can offer practical solutions in difficult humanitarian circumstances. Blockchain technology is of great help in refugee-settings, for example.
But as with all progress and all innovation, it comes with risks and raises difficult questions – also in the field of human rights. Some authoritarian regimes are using the power of technology for their own internal purposes. The result can be: draconian systems of censorship, monitoring, and tracking of dissidents and human rights defenders.
The net has closed so tightly around people with dissenting views, that they don’t dare to express them anymore and do not know where to go. Let alone stand up for their rights. To paraphrase George Orwell’s 1984, “nothing is their own except the few cubic centimetres inside their skulls”.
Orwell wrote a dystopian novel. Fiction. Today, however, we are talking about an emerging new reality. A reality that risks spreading. Because this technology is being exported to a wide range of states. 3 years after the end of the second World War, at the adoption of the Universal declaration of Human Rights, chairwoman Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the hope that this text would become: “the international Magna Carta<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Carta> of all men, everywhere."
The concept of everywhere, in the meantime, has dramatically changed. And Ms. Roosevelt could not possibly have guessed that the scope of her Magna Carta would have to be extended into this new, elusive dimension: cyberspace.
I am the first to recognize: in the past decade, we have witnessed the tremendous force for good that our interconnectedness provides. It has alerted us, enlightened us, and alarmed us. The internet opens grand possibilities for democratization of knowledge, freedom of expression, political participation, and education. Sometimes cyberspace is even the last ‘safe space’ where basic rights can be discussed, and promoted in a community of practice. We have seen telling examples thereof in the recent past.
But internet can only be this force for good if, firstly, the internet is open, free and available for all, and secondly, if using the possibilities of the internet can be made safe and secure – not a risk.
On the first point: there is still a huge global connectivity gap: 60% of the world population has no access to the internet. That is, partially, also a gender gap.
On the second point: freedom online is under threat, so tells us the most recent Freedom House report. An increasing number of governments is censoring information. Worldwide, the number of arrests for online sharing of information on politics, religion of the society is increasing. In the last years, fourteen countries passed new legislation to improve surveillance.
What’s more, more and more countries shut down the internet to stifle dissent. This means the space for human rights defenders risks shrinking further – not only offline, but also online: in cyberspace. The Netherlands tries to actively address this aspect on the various international chessboards: we raise the issue in the Freedom Online Coalition. But also in the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS), which made freedom online one of its central themes.
Internationally, we also try to support various tangible projects. For example through the Digital Defenders Partnership, which helps human rights defenders who are in need of practical digital assistance. Cyberspace and human rights - it is a whole new area of possibilities and risks. We have to be able to address it - and we do so actively. Pleased to see that it is a central theme of the programme.
The third worrisome trend I want to highlight is this: in some corners, the concept of democracy appears to be narrowed down - again - to the mechanics of electoral processes: the way in which societies choose their representatives.
But this is only a small part of the profound, expansive story that is democracy! A mature democracy needs so much more: checks and balances, separation of powers, strong institutions, rule of law, and independent courts that are accessible to everyone and render justice to all. The realization that nobody should be above the law. Not even governments. Especially not governments.
This is something keenly understood by Ben Ferencz, the subject of the film we are about to see, who fought his entire life for his motto “law, not war”. In Europe, we know from experience that building such mature democracies takes time and effort. It is a work never done. On the ash heaps of World War II, decades of fine-tuning the rule of law and institutions followed. So that indeed, no one is left behind.
A mature rule of law takes decades to build, and is surprisingly easy to break down. We are seeing attempts emerging that want to do just that, even within our European borders. These attempts to replace it with an alternative storyline of ‘’illiberalism’’, to hide behind the so often cited ‘’will of the people’’, to demonise others and lure voters with simplistic slogan-like solutions that some individuals like to offer, should be fought.
Why? Because without checks and balances majority rule risks becoming a tyranny of the majority. To avoid that from ever happening again, we need respect for the rule of law, for human rights - exactly as it is enshrined in our European Treaties. Values that are hard fought. Rights that are a prerequisite to so much else: stability, social cohesion, and inclusive economic growth; to trade and investment, yes, those as well.
Human rights – it sounds so basic- are in all of our interests: yours, mine, everybody’s. We all have to realize: another person’s human rights are in my interest as well. It is about our shared interests. So, we all have to defend, reform, and protect the system of human rights. To avoid, as Kagan puts it in his recent book, ‘that the jungle grows back’.
In closing, I am convinced that here in Europe, we owe just as much to our ability to respect human rights as we do to economic growth. And to the understanding that human rights need constant maintenance, courage, and vision. Yes, also within the Netherlands. Our work here is not done...
On issues like equal pay for men and women, for instance, and on issues like discrimination on the labour market. Internationally, this government has made more money available to promote human rights, in particular for the safety of journalists, the freedom of religion or belief, including the possibility to not believe, and equal rights for LGBTI people.
We will continue to promote these and other universal rights. So that human rights defenders, with the help of organisations such as Human Rights Watch, can continue to do their valuable work. So that governments suppressing human rights under the guise of a new “development model” will, in the end, not be able to achieve their goal. In the foreign trade and development agenda of this government, rights take a central position as well. Because what is development worth, if half of society is left behind? So we focus on women…
As a government, we cannot do it alone. So we engage Dutch companies. We have developed agreements with several Dutch business sectors, setting out how they put their responsibility in practice, especially in their foreign operations. More and more, fortunately, companies see that they have a responsibility and an interest here.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As I said: we cannot do it alone. Popular support for human rights and the rule of law is essential. That is why gatherings such as this one are so valuable. And so are organisations such as Human Rights watch, part of our valuable civil society. Valuable because: human rights belong to all of us. To enjoy, but also to uphold. I am confident you will all stand up for human rights, just as Human Rights Watch, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands will continue to stand up for human rights – each with our own responsibilities.
Keep up the good work!