Toespraak door minister Weerwind bij 75 jaar Congres van Europa

Toespraak van minister Weerwind (Rechtsbescherming) op een bijeenkomst in het Vredespaleis in Den Haag waar gevierd werd dat 75 jaar geleden het Congres van Europa in Den Haag werd gehouden.

De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Mr President, excellenties, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. It’s a great pleasure to visit your Assembly again, the last time being on the occasion of the visit of the King of the Netherlands in June 2022. This time we meet here in The Hague, the international city of Peace and Justice.

Today we find ourselves in the Peace Palace, a powerful monument to the ideal that right is stronger than might. 75 years after the Congress of The Hague where one might say the Council of Europe first saw daylight, this is the perfect place to stress the importance of European cooperation in the field of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The Netherlands is home to numerous international courts and tribunals because we deeply believe that human rights are truly universal, and that we have a duty to help protect and advance them. Every single day, and every time again.

The Dutch constitution states that the government shall promote the development of the international legal order. For the Netherlands, and for me as Minister for Legal Protection, the Courts in this Peace Palace are key components of the international legal order.

This is particularly necessary in times of war, when the gap between ‘might’ and ‘right’ is greatest. The Council of Europe was founded shortly after the Second World War. For this precise reason: to address this gap. After having witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust our visionary predecessors not only dreamed of peace and justice on the European continent, but also had the ambition to build a common European home to prevent new wars, human suffering and tyranny on our continent.

This was a bold endeavor. It took not only vision but also courage to take the first steps towards European cooperation. Courage because it is an amazing achievement that 46 countries, large and small, acting of their own free will, have bound themselves to so many common agreements.

Today we have more than 220 conventions and treaties protecting over 600 million people. For nearly 75 years, the Council of Europe has shown that our past does not have to define our future.

We have demonstrated - to ourselves and the world - that there is an alternative to violence and tyranny. That it is possible to live together in peace and liberty. That we can choose dialogue over conflict. Or at least, we thought we did.

Today, more than ever, we need to stand together as Europeans. We must realize that we have made tremendous progress in the past 75 years. Step by step, agreement by agreement, convention by convention, we have worked together to achieve a higher level of protection.

Now that these achievements are being put to the test, it is our duty to rally behind those, to cherish those and more importantly, to use them to their strengths.

The Council of Europe has been 1 of the key driving forces behind these efforts. The Council of Europe has been clear on its stance: The Council acted united and decisively on expelling Russia from the organization in March 2022.

Even though this decision was inevitable given the blatant violations of the principles of the organization by Russia, it was also a very painful decision as it deprives Russian citizens of the protection of the European Court of Human Rights.

Since the downing of flight MH17, more than 8 years ago, the Netherlands is closely involved in the situation in Ukraine. As you all know the Netherlands has lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights against Russia regarding its role in the downing of flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. All 298 people on board, including 196 Dutch nationals, were killed.

It was an unprecedented event that shook this country to its core. So many lives lost, so many families torn apart, so many wounds that will never heal.

In its decision of 25 January 2023 the European Court determined that the application of the Netherlands against Russia is admissible, in other words: the Court will now consider the merits of the application. This is a major step towards establishing the truth and achieving justice and accountability for all the victims and their loved ones.

Ladies and gentlemen, Russia’s unwarranted, unprovoked and brutal aggression against Ukraine is still ongoing. Every day we are confronted with horrific evidence of war crimes, and atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people.

I can assure you that the Netherlands will continue its support to the people of Ukraine. In the form of arms, sanctions and humanitarian aid. And on our watch no stone will be left unturned and we will do everything we can to ensure there is no impunity for atrocities, wherever they may appear.

It’s with deep personal conviction that I say: those responsible should be held to account, no matter how long it takes. The road to justice may be long, but let us not forget that we have instruments in place that we did not yet have the last time war raged on the European continent.

The Netherlands is pursuing a 3-track approach to help achieve accountability.

First, we’re supporting the office of the Ukrainian prosecutor general.

Second, we’re supporting the ICC in its investigations.

And third, we’re looking at additional ways to investigate and prosecute international crimes. For example by consulting with our partners on the feasibility of establishing a special tribunal for the crime of aggression.

Russia must be held accountable in courts for its odious crimes. Prosecutors from Ukraine and from member states of the European Union are already working together, collecting evidence.

As a first step, I am pleased the European Commission announced that an International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine will be set up here, in The Hague. This Centre will coordinate the collection of evidence. It will be embedded in the Joint Investigation Team which is supported by Eurojust.

I am also pleased to confirm that my Government has responded positively to Ukraine’s request to host a register for claims stemming from the aggression by the Russian Federation. I note with satisfaction that the Council of Europe has demonstrated its interest to be involved in the operation of such a register, given the extensive knowledge of the organization in dealing with individual applications concerning human rights violations.

In July 2022, we hosted the Ukraine Accountability Conference here in The Hague, to help advance these three tracks. At that conference, it was agreed to set up a Ukraine accountability dialogue group, which is to be launched this month.

The Netherlands will co-host a justice ministers conference together with our British counterparts on the 20th of March with the aim of supporting the ICC and its work in Ukraine. The message here is clear: we will not rest in the pursuit of justice.

We will continue on this path, even though we know it is long, and will be difficult.

Ladies and gentlemen, The 4th summit of the Council of Europe will take place this May in Reykjavik under the Icelandic Presidency. The upcoming summit is an opportunity to set up the Council for a new era in European history. I would like to focus on two important points for the summit: the need to reaffirm the value of the rule of law and the need to address future challenges together.

We see the rule of law backsliding all over Europe. Thus, we need the Council of Europe more than ever. Together we should work to strengthen this organisation.

While we, as nations, may have different national identities, legal systems and traditions, the core principles of the rule of law are the same across Europe. Respect for the rule of law is essential for all our citizens.

Ensuring respect for the rule of law is a responsibility of each country, but we have a shared stake and we all have a role to play in addressing and resolving rule of law issues wherever they appear.

Our constitutional, legal and political systems generally reflect high rule of law standards. That is something to be proud of! However, in light of the serious challenges we face today, there is no room for complacency.

It was, it is and it will remain important that we are critical of one another. But perhaps most of all, we must have the courage to be critical of ourselves.

As minister I welcome the constructive contribution made by the Council of Europe to improving our legislation and policy. Take for example the very first Venice Commission report on the rule of law situation in the Netherlands published in 2021, at the request of the House of Representatives of the States General. The report contained guidance for improving the individual legal protection offered to citizens of the Netherlands after the childcare benefits scandal.

The experts provided us with well-founded suggestions which we took to heart. The Council of Europe is there to hold up a mirror. Let me be frank. What we saw was painful. This is however no reason to just ignore it.

We know that we, our institutions and our policies are not perfect. An important lesson is that the rule of law never functions perfectly. A state governed by the rule of law is not a state where mistakes are never made, but one where mistakes are learned from.

All over Europe, we see cases where the resilience of rule of law safeguards is being tested. Shortcomings concerning the key principle of the independence of justice become more evident every day.

What we need is a strong commitment to execute judgments of independent and impartial courts. At the national and international level.

Sooner or later, every government will have to deal with court rulings that are not, or not fully, in line with government policy. Even then, or especially then, it is our duty and obligation to uphold and strengthen the rule of law.

When it comes to cooperation between countries, we need an effective and rules-based European system. Without this, judicial cooperation is impossible.

The European Court of Human Rights is also of vital importance to the rule of law. The failure to execute judgments in a timely manner can undermine the credibility of the Convention system. Such failures must be confronted in an open and determined manner.  

Another challenge where cooperation is absolutely vital is the fight against organized and subversive crime. Crime is increasingly undermining the safety of our society and our open economies. The international drug trade involves huge amounts of criminal money, brutal violence and intimidation.

We can no longer be naive about this. We have to defend our democratic rule of law against this menace. In the Netherlands the fight against organized and subversive crime is being ramped up on all fronts: in our investigative system, in our cooperation with international partners and in the involvement of all of society. The Council of Europe can and should also play an important role in this fight.

Mr. President, excellenties, ladies and gentlemen,

We are at a crossroads in European history. Today, more than ever, we need to stand together as Europeans. We can truly be proud of what we have achieved together. At the same time we have to realize there is still tremendous progress to be made. Our predecessors have cleared the path, making it possible for us to deal with new challenges and they are expecting us to do so as well, timely and decisively.

At the same time, our children and our grandchildren are watching our every step, to make sure to grant to them the freedoms and benefits as Europeans we experienced, and to fulfill the ambitions of the European promise.

As 1 of the great legal scholars of all time, the Dutch and The Hague-based Hugo Grotius once said:

“Liberty is the power that we have over ourselves”.

It is now up to us to fight for these liberties. Let’s get to work.

Thank you very much.