Nicola Jagers

Nicola Jägers: Human rights are often used for political gain and must be protected

Published: 06th December 2021 Last updated: 28th July 2022

Human rights a far cry from the rest of the world? On the contrary, international human rights do not only concern countries like Syria or China and are more relevant than ever. People's representatives constantly link vaccinations, the shortage of affordable housing, refugees or the climate crisis to human rights, argues Professor of International Human Rights Nicola Jägers. But these rights are also threatened by politicians using them for their own ends. What can we do to counteract the inflation of human rights? An interview with her on the occasion of the International Human Rights Day December 10, the 25th presentation of the Max van der Stoel Award.

'Where do universal human rights (...) begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any world map. (...) Those are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equality without discrimination. (...). Without concerted action by citizens to uphold them close to home, we will seek progress in the larger world in vain.'

With this quote from the American first lady Eleonor Roosevelt on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the declaration of universal human rights in 1958, Jägers illustrates the importance of fundamental human rights for all. 

Nicola Jagers

Human rights are a weapon against the power of governments

Professor of International Human Rights Nicola Jägers

'For the past eight years I have been a member of the College van de Rechten van de Mens, the Dutch watchdog set up to monitor. There I saw how important human rights are, also in the Netherlands. Our country often has the tendency to point at other countries when it comes to violations, and is sometimes blind to issues such as racism or restrictions on women's rights at home. Shortly after WWII, in 1948, human rights were written down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a weapon against the power of governments. At its core then, it is about human dignity. From this stem of the Universal Declaration, many branches have sprouted, for example, for women's and disabled people's rights. And there were refinements through monitoring at the national and international level. Human rights seemed untouchable and self-evident under the shadow of war. But our memory is short.'

Human rights are under pressure?

'Yes, the geopolitical balance of power has naturally evolved. Political power blocs of the past, Europe and the US, gave in in favor of China, for example. That country argues that the West is far too focused on individual rights, thereby compromising the collective, which is far more important to China. But also within Europe there is no longer unanimity as Hungary and Poland for instance do not care about rights for LGBTIQ+ people and independent judiciary is undermined. 

Furthermore, you also have to think about new power structures, look at globalized business. I have done research on how business observes human rights, because their influence now extends across borders and concerns labor law, environment, incomes etc.

These changes are causing a rethinking of human rights and they are interpreted differently now than they were in 1948. Therefore we must remain vigilant and protect human rights.'

More education is necessary to make us aware of international human rights

That's not an easy task, how do we carry it out?

'The Constitution states that the Netherlands must actively work to protect the international legal order. Of course, our country is small, and great friend the US has been absent for a while in this area, but the Netherlands is therefore obliged to act against impunity, inequality and discrimination. This can be done by actively promoting institutions that protect human rights on a national and international level. Certain countries such as China, Russia and Poland actively work against this. An example is the procedure established in 2005 at the UN whereby countries assess each other's enforcement of human rights, the Universal Periodic Peer Review. The system is not perfect but deserves support. Furthermore, there is work to be done to make the relevance of human rights clearer in light of current challenges, such as the climate crisis.' 

And what can be done within the Netherlands?

'Also within the Netherlands we must remain vigilant. The term human rights has never been used as often as now in the parliament, but usually when the speaker benefits from it. And in Western parliaments the importance of human rights is now openly doubted at the same time. That is a creeping process of erosion of those rights. I think that where fundamental human rights are being questioned, we should always speak out strongly against it.'

Isn't ignoring such ideas an option to prevent this erosion from growing?

'No, I certainly don't think that's a good answer. The parliament must make the relevance of human rights much clearer. Education is also very important. Compared to surrounding countries, the Dutch have little knowledge of human rights. If you ask them about it, they will mention freedom of speech, but not much else. You have to be aware of these rights from an early age and take that knowledge with you to university. '

The Max van der Stoel Award and lecture are dedicated to International Human Rights Day. With a Keynote by the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie, followed by the 25th presentation of the Max van der Stoel Human Rights Award. Time: 13:00-14:15 hrs.
Admission is free after registration (required).

(By Tineke Bennema)