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Interview with Arie Bloed, Editor-in-Chief of the Security and Human Rights Monitor and Co-Founder of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee

Ian de Jong
Interviews18 March 2018

Dr. Arie Bloed is one of the people who founded the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC). On the 14th of March, he received the decoration of ‘Officer’ in the Order of Orange-Nassau for the years of work he has devoted to the OSCE, the NHC and the Helsinki process. As the NHC celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, former Chairman of the NHC, Ambassador Ian de Jong, looks back with Mr. Bloed on the past 30 years, the achievements of the NHC and the challenges it faced.   

Ian de Jong: You have been closely involved in the Netherlands Helsinki Committee for over 30 years. Tell me more about the group of academics, politicians, religious and trade union leaders who founded the organisation in 1987

Arie Bloed: At that time, I was a young academic, teaching International Public Law at Utrecht University. I also chaired the Helsinki working group of the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (the Dutch Section of the International Commission of Jurists). Together with Pieter van Dijk (now Emeritus professor of International Law at Utrecht University) we felt that the Helsinki process entailed much more than just human rights. We wished to become more active in the field of security as well. Therefore, we founded the Netherlands Helsinki Committee with the aim to cover all three OSCE baskets: Human rights, economics and the environment and security issues. In those days that was quite unique. There were already some Helsinki Groups in western countries, for instance Helsinki Watch in the United States and the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Helsinki Committees. But they all focused primarily on human rights. We tried to incorporate a wider view. Secondly, we wanted to shift the exclusive focus on the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, to also look at the situation in the Netherlands, given its obligations under the Helsinki agreements.

Consequently, Pieter and I looked for members of the new organisation who could represent a broad spectrum of Dutch society. We succeeded in bringing together quite an illustrious and influential group of people with backgrounds in politics, academia, Dutch diplomacy, armed forces, trade unions, the churches and internationalists. We tried to be a very serious, nonpartisan group: we did not want to be regarded as either a leftist or rightist movement. To ensure members’ independence we required that they should not be in active service at that time in their careers. I am glad to note that the present composition of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee still follows those principles. However, it is a pity that it no longer has members with a military or security background.

Our first Chairman was Peter Baehr (Professor of Human Rights at Leiden University and long-time member of the International Board of Amnesty International). He was later succeeded by Max van der Stoel, former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Prominent early members were Pieter van Dijk, Professor of International Public Law, Evert Alkema, Professor of International Public Law, former Dutch Cabinet Minister Til Gardeniers, Wim Spit, Vice-Chair of the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions, Fried van Hoof, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, General Govert Huijser, former Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch Armed Forces. Jan ter Laak of Pax Christi, an important player in the then Dutch Peace Movement, was also invited, because of his moderate views on détente and security in Europe.

We cherished our independent position and therefore started to operate with a tiny working capital of a few hundred Dutch guilders (each board member contributed 100 guilders at the time). The idea was to repay these contributions later. However, this never happened, as in the end all agreed to make it a donation to the new organization! In that heady political era, the University of Utrecht allowed us to work from within its Europe Institute, even providing free postal services. Our first staff member was a hardworking volunteer, Ivo Kersten, who even produced a regular press review on Helsinki issues. And our first (poorly paid!) employee was Rick Lawson, now Professor of European Law and Human Rights at the University of Leiden and former Dean of its Legal Faculty.

Ian de Jong: What was the Netherlands Helsinki Committee’s mission in those early years?

Arie Bloed: As to our mission, it is noteworthy that the Netherlands Helsinki Committee was established two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event was not foreseeable at the time, and we spent hours discussing if we should believe in Glasnost or not. We very much wished to stay aloof of polarisation. From that point of view, we were delighted when Max van der Stoel, with his nearly iconic reputation of moral integrity, fair-mindedness and belief in the importance of justice and international law, joined our committee. This apparently appealed to both donors and public opinion. The Algemene Loterij Nederland, the organisation that channels income from state run lotteries to charities, came up with 50.000 guilders for projects in Eastern Europe. Our network in Parliament was excellent, and the press generally supported our activities.

Ian de Jong: Was the Dutch Government supportive of your ideas?

Arie Bloed: Well, that was a gradual process. At first, I suppose our drive for action and quick results must have raised some eyebrows at the Foreign Ministry. That was certainly the case when we discovered in the late ‘80s that Dutch visa fees for visitors from Warsaw Pact countries had actually increased substantially after the Helsinki Accords had been signed. One of the objectives of Helsinki was to make it easier for individuals to travel. However, in reality the cost of a visa to visit the Netherlands for a citizen from Romania, for instance, had increased to more than half of the average monthly income in that country. From official Dutch documents, we learnt that the reason for this augmentation was simply to replenish the coffers of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that financially suffered from a failed new passport project.

This was flouting the letter and spirit of the Helsinki process. Therefore, we sent a memorandum on this development to Parliament, which resulted in a broadly supported parliamentary motion to lower these visa fees. The Foreign Minister at that time, Mr. Hans van den Broek, strongly opposed this motion, merely because of financial reasons. He ended up rallying enough support from government parties to be able to reject the motion. Morally, however, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee had won and the press and other opinion makers continued to give us credit for our actions. Very quickly our organisation had acquired national visibility and was recognised as a sound and independent moral force.

At the same time, we were pleased to discover that the political and security departments of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs often welcomed the very concrete and serious reports we prepared in our own expert working groups in support of Dutch delegations to various Helsinki and other Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) type meetings. Our policy recommendations were appreciated and even led to members of our organisation taking part in Dutch government delegations. This kind of work was, perhaps, not very sexy and interesting for the press, but it certainly was effective! The work in our own broadly composed working groups, which also included defence experts, resulted in the foundation of our own journal: the Helsinki Monitor.

In the years preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, we had to be very careful not to endanger our friends in the East. I recall meeting up with reformers in Poland in public parks, as those locations were the only place where we could speak freely. We supported the Polish Helsinki Committee, at first with small cash grants. At a later stage, the Dutch Erasmus Foundation provided 100.000 guilders. But very few of our counterparts were asking for financial support. What they needed most was moral support for their often dangerous activities. Publicly speaking out for their objectives in the press and international meetings was necessary as well. Max van der Stoel was a great help in this respect. He was always willing to travel to meetings in the East, and given his record in the field of human rights as former Minister of Foreign Affairs, his voice was heard. Max was very modest about all this. And knowing about our shortage of funds, he travelled economy class and did not mind being picked up by us at the airport in a Citroen Dyane for debriefing. At the beginning of the nineties, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of democratisation in the East, this phase of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee’s work gradually ended, and we moved in two new directions.

Firstly, we started annual Peace Palace conferences in The Hague, where – behind closed doors – academics, politicians and government officials exchanged views on strengthening the Helsinki process by thinking ‘out of the box’. Secondly, our office expanded into a project oriented organisation. We got involved in many projects that aimed to strengthen political and judicial institutions in Central and East European countries in accordance with the objectives and principles of the Helsinki process. Our projects ranged from the reform of criminal law and the training of the judiciary in Ukraine, to judiciary reforms in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and capacity building in many countries. We helped to set up new institutions in the field of human rights at universities and within governments that still exist today.

Ian de Jong: Do you believe these activities of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee have had a lasting effect?

Arie Bloed: Yes, for sure. Many of the countries involved in our past activities are now members of the European Union (EU), even if some are still facing big difficulties. Nevertheless, we succeeded in introducing them to the concept of the Rule of Law, which is something completely different from socialist law. The functioning of a democracy and the respect for human rights was completely new to people living under autocratic communist regimes. They had been brainwashed for nearly half a century by socialist ideologies, including the socialist doctrine of law. The programs and projects we initiated certainly helped to make a change.

Ian de Jong: Given the progress made, is there still a need to provide this type of assistance to the former members of the communist world?

Arie Bloed: Well, it is a fact that in 2004 ten countries joined the EU, and a few years later also Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia did so. The official doctrine is that once a country accedes to the EU, it meets the criteria for membership. Or rather: the country involved has passed the exam, and therefore it is now a member state. Personally, I believe many new members were not ready for membership. But for understandable reasons Western European democracies accepted their accession. I lived in Hungary for several years, an experience that taught me that the country was not ready at the time. The same applies to other countries.

Ian de Jong: In this day and age, is there still a role for organisations such as the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and its counterparts in other countries of the OSCE? And taking this question a little further, does keeping the OSCE alive make sense? We have the EU now with many new member states, and there is the Council of Europe.

Arie Bloed: One can not deny that the human rights movement under the Helsinki flag still makes a lot of sense. It is the only pan-European movement we have. Of course, the Council of Europe in some ways operates in comparable waters. Unfortunately, the Council of Europe admitted far too many new members that do not sufficiently meet its standards. Even so, it has considerably fewer members than the OSCE.

The OSCE is a politically oriented organisation that encompasses all countries of our region. Yes, it does monitor human rights situations. It is the only organisation in our part of the world where annually more than a thousand people meet at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. The fact that so many human rights organisations come to this event proves the sheer size of the problems they are encountering in their own countries. This is a unique meeting, where politicians and diplomats and NGOs are together in the same building for several weeks.  In addition, NGOs have the right to speak. That alone justifies the OSCE’s continuation as an international organisation. Moreover, the OSCE human dimension engagement in so many (post-)conflict situations is unique and can not simply be replaced by the EU or the Council of Europe.

From the Dutch perspective with its excellent system of the rule of law and a responsive political establishment, one might not care too much about the OSCE. If the man-in-the-street in the Netherlands has never heard of the OSCE, that is understandable. In countries like Romania, Ukraine or Macedonia, the situation is completely different: everyone knows the OSCE. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe understand very well that the Helsinki Final Act is not just a treaty, but a highly political document. It is a symbol, also in Russia. It stands for freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. Many people in the West do not understand what the Helsinki Accords mean to people further east. In Eastern Europe, the Helsinki Committees still exist, in Russia Ludmilla Alexeeva of the old Moscow Helsinki Committee is still active under the Helsinki flag at the age of 90!

Here in the Netherlands we do not take this sentiment sufficiently into account. We see the text of the 1975 Final Act, and we see an organisation that is going through a difficult phase. We do not really know how to handle this instrument. And still, whenever there is trouble somewhere in our region, we come back to this organisation. That was the case in Kosovo in 1998/9, with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement, and now again in Ukraine, with the invasion of Crimea and the conflict in the east. In that part of the world there is no EU or NATO. But we do have the OSCE with its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine. Of course, the SMM is faced with plenty of problems, but the fact is that it does continue to patrol and report under very difficult circumstances and almost all observers appreciate its work. The OSCE is more than just a lot of words on paper: it has the power of a symbol!

I recall a long conversation we had in New York in 1992 with [former US Secretary of State] Cyrus Vance when he had been asked by the Secretary General of the United Nations to look for a solution of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. Vance then agreed that this was not a question for the United Nations, but for the OSCE to tackle. I will never say that the OSCE is a wonderful organisation. Quite the contrary, the OSCE is an organisation that stumbles from one crisis into the next. The fact that it still stumbles along after 40 years implies we cannot do without it!

Ian de Jong: When it comes to the human dimension, would you not agree that there is an overlap with the Council of Europe?

Arie Bloed: You approach this question too much from an academic point of view. Let me illustrate this with an anecdote. In 1991, after the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited in 1990, there was a CSCE Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions in Oslo.  The then Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the flamboyant Cathérine Lalumière, had concluded that the human dimension task of the OSCE could be lifted and should be taken over by the Council of Europe. I remember how she walked into the meeting room at the head of an army of Strasbourg bureaucrats, demonstrating all the expertise she had. Despite her powerful approach, she got no political support. Why? Because the human dimension of the OSCE is not comparable to what the Council of Europe actually does in this field. And the OSCE has a different membership. Obviously, both organisations have some overlap, but the OSCE has a different raison d’être, namely: to facilitate dialogue.

Ian de Jong: Can the OSCE survive in times where tensions with Russia are on the rise?

Arie Bloed: The OSCE is often the only forum where key players such as the Americans and Russians actually talk to each other. In principle, it is possible to liquidate the organisation. But what would you gain by doing so? The OSCE´s budget at present is € 138 million plus approximately € 100 million for the Special Monitoring Mission in Eastern Ukraine. That is less than 1 per cent of the NATO budget. No, there is no alternative to the OSCE. If that was the case, the OSCE would have been liquidated long ago. The fact that there is consensus on the budget is significant. In that context, it is good to note that the budget also includes funding of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It is a well-known fact that Moscow considered withdrawal from the OSCE a number of years ago. After appraisal of all the pros and cons the Russian conclusion was that there was more to be gained from membership than from withdrawal. Obviously, every year Russia tries to lower its actual contribution, but this is no different from its position elsewhere in international organisations.

Ian de Jong: Do you have final comments?

Arie Bloed: I am pleased to see that the Netherlands Helsinki Committee is doing well in many ways, in promoting the rule of law, human rights, the fight against trafficking in women and children, rehabilitation of prisoners and more. I would, however, like to see more work done on policy development, both in the field of the human dimension and security. It is a pity that the last annual Peace Palace policy seminar took place many years ago. I am aware of the restrictions on funding, especially during the financial crisis of 2008 – 2013. Perhaps this avenue should be re-explored. In my days, we did manage these sorts of things with only relatively small amounts of money.

Luckily, we still have the journal Security and Human Rights, which is now part of a new website: The Security and Human Rights Monitor. This publication remains important as a source of knowledge and policy dialogue. The recent transformation of the journal into a digital instrument of the Security and Human Rights Monitor will hopefully attract even more readers and contributors.


*Ambassador (ret.) Ian de Jong is former Chairman of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee


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