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“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know from what you do.” – Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

"My dear. A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears. "
- Violet in Downton Abbey

"By perseverance the snail reached the ark. "
- Charles Spurgeon

"Not all those who wander are lost."

17 augustus 2014

Great speech on human rights by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs on the international youth conference of the Anne Frank Trust

"On 6 and 7 June 1943 two trains left Vught station. On board were 1,269 Jewish children who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp in Vught. Among them was an eight-year-old boy named David Jacob Zak. Everyone called him Deddie. On 11 June he and his parents, Simon and Judith, were killed in the gas chambers of Sobibor.

Two months ago I accompanied the King and Queen on their State visit to Poland. The programme included a visit to the museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising which began 70 years ago this month. There we were told about the preparations being made for a memorial at the site of Sobibor extermination camp, the place where over 30,000 Dutch people died.

The Germans completely destroyed Sobibor before the end of the war. In excavations carried out later, someone found a name tag of a Dutch boy that read: Deddie Zak, Uiterwaardenstraat 17 III, Amsterdam. That tag is on exhibit at the museum, with a photograph of an eight-year-old lad.

Seeing that name tag and picture would make a deep impression on any father. For me, it was as if I were looking at my own son. I recognised aspects of my own parenting, too. When my kids were small I had them wear tags just like that one – with their name, address and phone number – so that if they got lost they could be brought back home.

An ordinary boy, with ordinary parents, victims of murder on an industrial scale. Victims who were no different from anyone else in their everyday habits, their love for their children and their desire for a peaceful life. They were murdered because they belonged to a group that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Deddie wasn’t just an eight-year-old lad with loving parents. He was a Jew living in the Netherlands during the war.

For me, Deddie has come to embody the fundamental human rights question. What happens in the human brain to cause someone to resent another’s humanity so much that they feel justified in locking them up, murdering them and wiping them off the face of the earth?

When people project hatred onto groups, that hatred can be expressed in the form of exclusion, criticism or discrimination. But often this is a slippery slope. It leads to the legitimation of an assumed right to murder people. This mechanism is still – or perhaps I should say: increasingly – the greatest human rights challenge that the international community faces.

Fundamentalists have always declared their own personal ideology to be absolute truth. They believe that it gives them the right to deny a normal life to anyone who doesn’t share their views. Or even any life at all.

The belief that one has a monopoly on the truth and the desire to spread it, goes beyond religion. National socialism, fascism and communism: examples of ideologies that had nothing to do with religion. They ultimately drove people to the same insanity and the same exclusionary mechanism. The scale, grounds and methods were different, but the mechanism was the same.

In his brilliant BBC series “The Story of the Jews” Simon Schama describes how this mechanism was applied to Jews in centuries of European history. The motivation was often religious, but especially after the emergence of the nation-state and nationalism, the motivation changed. Now Jews were often depicted as a ‘fifth column’, people who act traitorously and subversively out of a secret sympathy with an enemy of their country. Jews were supposedly only loyal to other Jews, to a worldwide conspiracy of cosmopolitans who wanted to cripple nations by controlling the banking system, the media and law making. To this day, this myth is kept alive by the radical right and fundamentalists alike. A quick tour of the worldwide web will show you that this dangerous nonsense is still alive and kicking.

Clearly this is universal: it happens or happened all over the world. In Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa. And anyone can fall victim to it: Jews and Muslims, Christians and Yazidis. Hindus and Bahá’ís. Atheists and gay people. Farmers and intellectuals. Anyone.

The question we should be focusing on is this: what can we do to stop this mechanism, stop this way of thinking and acting, and change people’s minds?

I look to you, as Anne Frank ambassadors. I look to myself, as a member of this government.

I would like to share with you three sets of guidelines. I hope they will help us in our fight.

But first and foremost I want to express my admiration and whole-hearted support for your contribution, for what the Anne Frank Foundation and its ambassadors, are doing. Because it isn’t governments and parliaments that should be leading the fight against this mechanism. It is ordinary people who form the first line of defence. And at times, they may have to oppose their own government, their own representatives, and stop them from drafting and enacting legislation that leads to exclusion, discrimination, exile and outright murder.
It takes ordinary people stepping up as soon as fundamentalism rears its head. And young people have an essential role to play. You are less inhibited by tradition and better educated than your parents. You are more curious about other customs and cultures and more open-minded about ethnic and cultural differences. And while everyone, young and old, has an interest in building a better future, it is even more important for you. Because you still have your whole lives ahead of you.

I am eager to hear your stories and learn about your activities. I know for sure that they will be instructive. Your actions contribute to better government action, better law-making and better parliamentary and judiciary oversight.

And this is badly needed. In Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise once again. Criticism of Roma and Sinti is growing harsher. The Muslim faith is being portrayed as the root of all evil. Crises elsewhere in the world have magnified social divisions. Conflict in the Middle East – be it violence between Israelis and Palestinians in and around Gaza or between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria and Iraq – is provoking tensions in the streets of the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

This is unacceptable. Jewish people in the Netherlands are not accountable for what happens in Gaza. Dutch Muslims are not responsible for how Christians are treated in Iraq. People should be judged by their own behaviour. Nobody should be made a scapegoat for the conduct of others. The key is to focus on the humanity of the other and see people as individuals. This would be my first guideline.

Taking action in an individual case is one way of weakening the mechanism of exclusion and dehumanisation. For example, if you can show that a situation is about a mother and her children, who want only to live an ordinary life and mean no harm to anyone or anything.

Think about the story of the Sudanese mother, Meriam Ibrahim, who was put on death row for marrying a Christian, who was imprisoned with her two babies. The law may be abstract, her story makes it personal. It’s about an individual person, about turning a ‘case’ into a person. Counteracting the process of dehumanisation can do a lot to undermine the mechanism of exclusion and worse.

Secondly: ‘Practise what you preach’ and be ready to be called to account. Don’t just concentrate on your adversaries’ conduct. Examine your friends’ behaviour and your own, too. On my Facebook timeline I am sometimes accused of being selective in my indignation. I’m criticised for getting agitated about ISIS but not about Egypt’s President Sisi. About Hamas but not about Israel.

I hear the same at other levels, from representatives of other countries. Here’s a concrete example: my Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov is the champion of ‘whataboutism’. Whenever anyone criticises the Russian legal system, he responds with: ‘What about the death penalty in the United States?’ The minute I start talking about gay rights, he brings up the rights of Dutch children: ‘What about the paedophile party in your country?’ he asks .

This is my answer: we’re against those things too. In fact, we support a programme aimed at encouraging public debate about the death penalty. We support the people who oppose the death penalty in the United States. The European Union refuses to supply the toxin used to carry out death sentences to the US. And an independent court in the Netherlands has ruled that the paedophile party must be banned.

We apply this principle to our policy on Israel. Another country with which we have strong economic and cultural ties. Israel is home to thousands of people of Dutch origin. It is an OECD country like we are. If we criticise what the Palestinians or Arabs do and they say: ‘what about Israel?’, then we can say: we are critical of them too. We support a human rights programme in Israel. I think the best response to whataboutism is: ‘we’re doing that too’.

If you want to achieve progress in human rights in a general sense, I believe the most vital task for the years ahead is to appeal for understanding for the other, and respect for the different choices that people make. But, again, your appeal won’t work unless you yourself are open to criticism and able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

And thirdly: It’s important to see human rights as a film rather than a snapshot. You need to take a longer view. When you consider the current situation, also look at where you’ve been and where you want to go, step by step.

The universality of human rights is one of the greatest revolutions in human history, and also one of the newest. The French Revolution didn’t bring democracy to France overnight. You may find yourself taking one step back for every two steps forward. Human rights require patience.

The experiences of countries like Poland and Spain are good examples to use in this debate. Something miraculous happened in those countries. In a fairly short time – not even a generation – their societies have become much more open to diversity. The same has happened in a number of African countries.

I think it is also important to set a good example and resist the urge to judge others, for example for being homophobic. This attitude helps nurture dialogue. If I had said to my grandparents that in the new millennium men would be able to marry men in the Netherlands, they’d have looked at me as if I were mad. Gay marriage simply wasn’t part of their life experience. But now it’s perfectly normal to more than three-quarters of the Dutch population.

Changes like that don’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process. I won’t comment on whether that’s a good thing or not: that’s something everyone has to decide for themselves. All I am saying is: developments like these can only take place when there is respect for where people are coming from.

Summing up, I believe there are three sets of guidelines that should govern our behaviour:

1. Judge people by their own behaviour, focus on the humanity of the other and see people as individuals.
2. Practise what you preach and be ready to be called to account.
3. Take the long view into account, see human rights as a film and show respect for where people are coming from.

Let me conclude.

Some say that there are no more ideological confrontations in the world. I have come to believe that this is not entirely true, and it may actually be entirely untrue. There are forces in the world that are hostile to our way of life and are trying to oppose it.

Why? Because they know that they have power over others. Power that comes from manipulation, indoctrination and unmitigated violence, supported by weapons. They can only maintain their power if they avoid a relationship with their people like the one we have.

President Putin’s anxiety about Ukraine is not based on a fear of blue flags with yellow stars on Maidan Square, but a fear of blue flags with yellow stars Red Square. Our way of life strikes fear in the hearts of ISIS leaders.

The last thing they want is for their people to seek what we take for granted: equal treatment, equal justice and religious freedom. Because then they would lose their power. The appeal of our way of life is so powerful that it incites formidable opposition, fuelled by fundamentalism and ultranationalism.

When we fight for human rights, we are fighting for our way of life, fighting to preserve our society and our values. Promoting human rights in the rest of the world is a way of securing and reinforcing our way of life in our own society and protecting what we hold dear.

This is why I believe that human rights policy is a cornerstone of foreign policy. There is more to it than simply wanting for others what we take for granted. We need to secure our way of life for the future, for our children and grandchildren. We need to arm ourselves against attacks from outside and from within by those who want to take it away from us.

For me, this is why we fight for human rights. The efforts of the Anne Frank Foundation and of its ambassadors are essential in that fight. In the words of Edmund Burke: ‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one.’

We mustn’t let that happen."

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