Human rights are increasingly considered to be crucial for the legitimacy of European institutions. Since 1983, the Dutch Constitution opens with a chapter on fundamental rights, in the first place equality and non-discrimination. The 1998 Human Rights Act in the United Kingdom is another case in point. The European Union proclaimed its Charter on Fundamental Rights in 2000, and made it into binding law in 2009. These are formal phenomena, but they have effects in everyday life. People who want to make a point about Islam will easily refer to equal rights of women and LGBT people, which they are purported to lack and we are said to have. This happens in politics, at parties and in the pub.
Therefore, it is remarkable that human rights are being relativized more and more frequently as well. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, last Friday had to explain why he had not publicly raised the issue of freedom of expression when a Dutch-Turkish journalist had been arrested in Turkey after critical tweets about Erdogan. He defended himself by stating that behaving like a gorilla is not going to get us anywhere. This kind of statement is not an isolated thing. Over the past few weeks, human rights organizations Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have published well researched reports about serious violations of the rights of Syrian refugees – from systematic refoulement to shooting them, including women and children. Prime minister Rutte and Dutch foreign secretary Koenders have systematically referred to these reports as “rumours”. They have made enquiries with the Turkish authorities, who have assured them that there is nothing whatsoever to worry about. There is “no reason at all to point a reproaching finger at Turkey.”
It might be objected that these statements are a bit awkward, but are related only to the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU. Because the Netherlands is President of the EU Council these months and the deal is very important, human rights have to be toned down. But this ignores that this is merely an escalation of a more long term process. Two years ago, Geert Wilders promised to make sure that there would be less Moroccans in the Netherlands. He now leads the polls, and faces criminal prosecution in court. When the Dutch legislation on family reunion was made stricter, there was wide support in Parliament for proposals which explicitly aim at reducing family reunion for people with a Turkish and Moroccan background. Why does Wilders face prosecution for something the Dutch legislator actually makes happen?
Human rights, like law in general, are always multi-interpretable. You can take them in different directions. The question, however, is whether they can be taken in different directions at the same time. That is what politicians of all shades are trying to do now, by turning up the volume on both points. They say ever more loudly how important human rights are. And they emphasize more and more that human rights are overdone – with the gorilla metaphor as a high point until now. The dissonance is increasing, and just as in music it will have to be resolved at one moment. Either Europe joins the likes of Putin and Erdogan, who find human rights silly nonsense. Or they join the ranks of people like Max van der Stoel, a former Dutch labour Party politician who, without ever raising his voice, unflinchingly advocated human rights.
Dutch version in NRC-Handelsblad 3 May 2016