Statement by Uri Rosenthal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, to the 16th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, 1 March 2011

Mr President, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

‘When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.’

These famous, tough words of Thomas Jefferson well describe the events the world has been witnessing since the people of Tunisia started their Jasmine Revolution late last year. Their successful street protests and demonstrations quickly spread across the region, leading to an astonishing series of developments. We are still in the midst of them. No one can foretell what the outcome actually will be. But we do know and feel that they are important. The historic changes that have been set in motion are overwhelming. This is not a question of replacing one oppressor with another. This is about the universal desire for liberty and human dignity.

Hope and optimism have taken hold in Egypt, where young people, who seemed to be facing a dead end, have found their own way out. They shook off their fears. Cautiously at first; but when they grew aware of their own strength, their protest grew ever louder. These young Egyptians, eager as they are to shape their country’s future, have given it a new dignity and purpose. And ‘youth’, I should add, is more a matter of attitude than of age. I saw a very old man smiling in the camera, saying that he, too, was one of the 25 January youth.   

Unfortunately, there is also ample reason for concern and dismay. The violent response of the regime in Libya to the people’s peaceful protests is outrageous. The Dutch government, in full agreement with the European Union, has condemned the Libyan authorities’ actions in the strongest possible terms, and has called for an immediate end to all governmental violence. The Libyan government, or whatever is left of it, must respect the rights of the Libyan people. The Dutch government has agreed, effective immediately, to ban all arms exports to Libya, to freeze its assets and to install a visa ban on the regime. I welcome last Friday’s special session on the situation in Libya. To the Netherlands, it is clear that no state that so blatantly disregards the human rights of its own citizens belongs in an international forum that seeks to uphold human rights standards across the world. In the current circumstances, it makes perfect sense to suspend Libya’s membership of the Human Rights Council.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The same determination and zeal with which the Arab peoples have sought change must be devoted to improving their opportunities in life. We, the international community, must support their efforts where we can. The Dutch government stands ready to help bilaterally, and also within the EU, as we have done for many years in countries like Egypt with projects in support of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. We  will continue these efforts, at our counterparts’ request. It is not up to us to draft blueprints for the future. That is the task first and foremost of the courageous people who have been struggling for freedom. They are fully capable to decide on their own future. But when they ask us to assist them, we can and we must help.

We should support a smooth transition to democracy and the rule of law. Democracy is not about free and fair elections alone. It is also about establising a transparent and efficient government, an effective judicial system and an end to corruption. And there’s more to be done. Jobs must be created, wealth generated, mostly through the private sector. To achieve this, the EU needs to be more forthcoming in opening up its markets, including the agricultural sector. This is the best guarantee for long-term stability and prosperity.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am hopeful that, against the background of the recent events in the Arab region, the Middle East Peace Process will be on the move again. The parties involved should be prepared to push the ‘reset’ button and finally bring lasting peace to a region that has been embroiled in conflict. These defining moments of change should inspire both Israel and the Palestinian leadership to act decisively. A new tone could make a vital difference. I am hopeful that this Council, too, will shoulder its responsibilities. I ask all member states to refrain from a one-sided approach, look instead for common ground, and try to be even-handed – really and genuinely even-handed. A major improvement would be to reduce the number of resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to address the issue in a more balanced way, by refraining from inflamatory language, which does not help the peace process at all.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Dutch government is in the process of updating its human right policies. The relationship between security, prosperity and human rights lies at the heart of our approach. The Netherlands will continue to support human rights defenders around the world. And we will try, together with others, to counter human rights violators. By imposing targeted sanctions on them, for example. Dutch human rights policies will focus on a number of fundamental rights. We will be keen on the freedom of expression, if only because it opens the door to the enjoyment of many other rights. For that matter, internet freedom is part and parcel of the freedom of expression. In the past few months, we have seen once more how important new technologies and the social media are in enabling people to connect and join hands in promoting their causes. This is why the Dutch government favours a European ban on the sale of internet filters to dictatorial regimes. And the Netherlands will also focus on freedom of religion and belief and on non-discrimination, especially against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. To be specific on one aspect: my government is very concerned about the prosecution of christians around the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to make one final remark. Five years ago, the Human Rights Council was established to elevate the position of human rights within the United Nations framework. The Netherlands, as one of the Council’s original members, together with many other countries from all regional groups, has worked hard to live up to this ambition: to make a real improvement in people’s daily lives. In the past five years, the Council has had its successes and its disappointments. A most notable achievement has been the introduction of the Universal Periodic Review, a most valuable instrument. Another success is the preservation of the Special Procedures and Special Rapporteurs. They are still the Council’s eyes and ears in the world, focusing on human rights abuses in specific countries or on specific themes. But we have to be selective and specific in using these instruments.

I call upon all member states to help these millions of people who are counting on us for a little support to put their fears behind them. So that they, too, can cross the bridge from tyranny to liberty.

Thank you.