STATEMENT: High Level Segment Human Rights Council

Delivered by H.E. Mr Bert Koenders, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 27 February 2017, United Nations Office in Geneva

Mr President,

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I addressed this Council last year, I began with the story of a Syrian man who’d been told by the authorities that his son had died in prison. That man’s son was only one of many victims – and the deaths continue to this day. Several weeks ago, the world learned about mass executions in Saydnaya Prison. A report by Amnesty International revealed that as many as 13 thousand people were hanged in secret. Most of them were civilians. They were put to death for no other reason than that they were suspected of opposing the government.

Amnesty’s report underlines the horrors the Syrian regime has been committing with impunity for the past five years. The true causes of death or injury are often covered up. We only hear about them through eyewitness accounts by survivors, fellow prisoners, doctors and former members of the regime.

Negotiations about Syria’s future resumed in this city last week. There can be no lasting peace in Syria without justice; there can be no justice without accountability; and there can be no accountability without the truth.

The truth must be recorded if the Assad regime and other parties are to be held accountable for their violations of human rights and humanitarian law. To this end, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution three months ago, initiated by Qatar and Liechtenstein, in which it decided to establish an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism. The Mechanism will assist in the investigation and, eventually, the prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes committed in Syria. It will help establish the truth, so that people can be held to account and justice can be done.

The Mechanism needs all the political and financial support it can get. There is no time to lose. So in ten days’ time, on 9 March, the Netherlands will host a conference to ensure the Mechanism can get started as soon as possible. We are working with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Office of the High Commissioner, and other stakeholders.

I call on every single person in this room to mobilise support in your capital. Help raise funds for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria.

In Yemen, too, truth, accountability and justice are needed to open up prospects for peace. I am pleased with the resolution that was unanimously adopted by the Human Rights Council last September. It paves the way for independent investigation of human rights violations and breaches of humanitarian law. Now is the time to push forward, now is the time to make sure the experts who will conduct those investigations really get started. The OHCHR’s team should be granted full access.

Mr President,

Terrorism continues to pose a threat to human rights around the world. The list of attacks covers developed and developing countries, peaceful areas and war zones. In Afghanistan, the number of terrorist attacks has reached the highest level ever recorded by the United Nations. Nearly 5000 deaths and injuries were attributed to the Taliban last year. But investigators also documented a ten-fold increase in casualties caused by ISIS in Afghanistan.

We should be equally concerned when the fight against terrorism puts fundamental values in jeopardy. In a number of countries journalists now face censorship, intimidation and downright violence. Combating terror is becoming an excuse to mute all criticism. Human rights defenders are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. Non-governmental organisations are struggling with harsh legislation.

I worry when the bombing of terrorist targets kills innocent civilians – sometimes even people attending funerals. I worry when humanitarian aid can no longer reach people in need because convoys are denied access.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

We should be concerned whenever human rights are presented as threats to the national interest. We should distrust any attempt to portray human rights as obstacles to security or stability. Without human rights, there can be no human dignity. Without human rights, there can be no civilised world order. And without human rights, there can be no lasting stability or security.

The world’s people have a right to life, and to be free of torture and discrimination. They have a right to individual freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They have electoral rights, and a right to a fair trial. They have a right to protection when they are vulnerable. These are not just words. They are rights. And governments have a responsibility to guarantee and protect them.

Governments must always be willing to submit to the law. Independent judiciaries must safeguard individual rights and freedoms. In the words of Montesquieu: ‘Il n’y a point encore de liberté si la puissance de juger n’est pas séparée de la puissance législative et de l’exécutrice’.

Human rights are universal and colorblind. Above all, human rights give people space: space to voice criticism and dissent. Space for diversity. We are not aiming for new and special rights for some people; we are aiming for established and equal rights for all people.

With this mind-set, we can overcome some of the politicisation and polarisation that too often paralyses the Human Rights Council, and instead work more on cooperation.

This year marks the start of the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, where we discuss and comment each other’s human rights situation. No country is without fault, no continent is above the law. Every country has its weaknesses. But together we are also a rich source of experience of how to overcome these weaknesses. Allow me to offer a suggestion. In addition to questions and recommendations, we should also assist each other when it comes to implementing the UPR recommendations.

We can share experiences and practise peer-to-peer education. On how to diminish domestic violence; on how to wipe out torture; or how to protect human right defenders and journalists.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

Human rights do not require that we agree on everything. They require only that we do not deny others the freedoms we claim for ourselves.

I invite you to work together to defend our international system of human rights. It is the only path to lasting security and freedom for all.

Thank you.