A life of human dignity for all: A human rights strategy for foreign policy


By Otto Spijkers


04-2c-gevangenis.jpgOn 6 November 2007, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, presented his new policy, entitled A life of human dignity for all: A human rights strategy for foreign policy. An English summary is available here; the entire report, which is in Dutch, can be found here. The goal of the strategy is ‘comprehensive and ambitious’, and it is, quite simply, ‘to protect and promote human rights throughout the world.’ Four key themes are highlighted:

(1) the universality of human rights;

(2) the relationship between human rights and peace and security;

(3) the indivisibility of human rights; and

(4) the voice of human rights.

The strategy is quite ambitious for such a small country.


The universality of human rights



On the first theme, the Minister writes:

Universality – the idea that human rights apply to all people, in all places, at all times – was the basic principle underlying the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, more than ever, it is important that this value form the centrepiece of human rights policy. At a time when intercultural dialogue is high on the agenda, it is vital that we emphasise the common basis. Human rights are part of that basis. The conviction that everyone is equal in terms of their rights and dignity is for example the driving force behind efforts to secure equal rights for men and women, to prevent cultural and religious traditions being used as a pretext for not respecting certain rights, and to ensure that everyone in the world is free to express their views.


The relationship between human rights and peace and security


On the second theme:

The connection between human rights, peace and security is the second key theme of our human rights strategy. Persistent human rights violations almost always lead to instability in the long term. Today’s society, where threats to security transcend national boundaries, is highly vulnerable in this respect. Countries whose structure and stability are undermined become a haven for international terrorism and international crime.

Interesting is also that the Netherlands unambiguously adopts the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (click here for the report introducing that concept):

At an international political level, it is important to increase support for the concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Though this concept is emphatically based on states’ own responsibility to protect the rights of their citizens, it also acknowledges that, where a state is unable or unwilling to do this, the international community cannot stand passively on the sidelines. The Netherlands will promote this concept wherever possible.



The indivisibility of human rights



On the third theme, the Minister notes that

Civil and political rights and development-related rights (economic, social and cultural rights) are equal in status and must be promoted without distinction. This is referred to as the indivisibility of human rights. Like civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights are necessary to a life with dignity. Civil and political rights are vital if progress is to be made on economic, social and cultural rights. The integrated nature of our foreign policy gives us excellent opportunities to give practical expression to the indivisibility of human rights.

As one of these practical expressions, the strategy refers to the opportunity to have the Dutch development policy ‘focus attention on the relationship between human rights and the Millennium Development Goals’, and to remind the private sector of its responsibilities in promoting all human rights everywhere.


The voice of human rights



On the fourth theme, ‘the voice of human rights’, the strategy notes the following:

We [i.e. the Dutch Government] can promote respect for human rights throughout the world by reminding countries of their international obligations, and by protesting against violations. However, for a society to change, pressure from outside is not enough. In the end people have to stand up for their own rights. Fortunately, however, in every society there are people courageous enough to raise their voices, inform their fellow citizens and call their governments to account, despite the dangers this can entail. Human rights defenders are the voice and the conscience of a society. Freedom of expression is needed if they are to be heard by their fellow countrymen and the government. Without media freedom human rights defenders are silenced, and without media diversity the public have no access to a range of different views. The Netherlands will support human rights defenders both politically and practically. It will also promote freedom of expression by encouraging media freedom and diversity.

This last statement is very important. In making this statement, the Netherlands has basically accepted for itself the role of a human rights activist. In other words, the Netherlands commits itself to cry out, and act in support of those individuals whose rights have been violated, wherever they are…. and, may one add: whatever the political consequences for the Netherlands? It seems indeed that the strategy is written entirely from the perspective of the individual whose rights have been violated, and not the interests of the Netherlands. For example, on p. 7 (on the ‘strategic effort’), we can read that

[w]e must also be careful to choose the most effective strategy in each situation. Sometimes, making an issue of something is counterproductive, and merely puts the people concerned at risk. In such cases, quiet diplomacy is the best approach, perhaps in the form of a critical dialogue behind closed doors. Sometimes, however, it is more effective to call a country publicly to account, by issuing a statement, for example, or calling upon its ambassador to clarify matters. The goal – to improve the human rights situation – is always paramount, even though the means may vary. At the same time, it is important to remember that the human rights situation cannot be improved overnight. We must therefore persist in our efforts, even when results are not immediately apparent.

See also ‘Weer werk maken van mensenrechten’, interview with Verhagen in de Volkskrant of 12 January 2008, available here.

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3 thoughts on “A life of human dignity for all: A human rights strategy for foreign policy

  1. Hi Otto
    It all sounds nice. But wouldn’t you agree that advocavy means more than just complaining? If the Dutch accept an obligation to advocate for human rights, they also should be accountable for some results — not just declarations. After all, the Dutch are not the only ones complaining to the Chinese. And by the way, what about the Russians – they may soon pass a law that diminishes double jeapardy protection. What will the Dutch government do about that?

  2. Perhaps it is because I am a philosopher that I do not really find concrete examples such crucial things. I like the strategy because it is the right strategy, from a theoretical/moral point of view (at least from my moral point of view), and because it is very ambitious. Although it is true that the strategy is part of a Dutch human rights defending tradition, you rightly point out that our history is not a human rights success story from the cavemen up to present times.

    But you ask for concrete examples. There are many? One most recent concrete example is the way we keep reminding China of its human rights obligations, as it prepares for the Olympics. There was even the suggestion to boycott the Olympics, for human rights reasons (http://www.minbuza.nl/nl/actueel/nieuwsberichten,2008/01/debat-olympische-spelen-china.html). Of course, the realists among us will say: would anyone even notice if the Netherlands Olympic delegation wasn’t there? But as a small country, we are used to such critique…. Anyway, the Minister for Foreign Affairs did not think a boycott was such a good idea, but we should keep bringing up the issue of respect for human rights, to the chagrin of the Chinese. (That last bit is not a direct quote of the Minister’s words, of course; after all, he is a politician.)

  3. Otto: do you have any concrete examples of how this new statement of principles has led (or will lead) to different policies? Or is it just a fancy new description of what the Netherlands has done all along? Was there ever a time when the goal was “not to protect and promote human rights around the world”? (without going all the way back to Colonialism and the goal of “promoting Dutch economic interests and saving the heathens”). Did the Netherlands ever favor particular human rights over others (or recognize that they could be in conflict), thereby violating indivisibility ?

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