Subscribe Here

How so Helsinki? About the evolution of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee

05 April 2022

Piet de Klerk is the Chairman of the Supervisory Board at the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC). On 04 April 2022, de Klerk gave a speech at The Hague’s “Sociëteit De Witte”, a private club that occupies a prominent niche in The Hague’s social life for over two centuries now. Given the events unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, de Klerk reflected on the evolution of the NHC, the crucial importance of the OSCE and the relevance of the vision and work of these organisations towards the defense of Rule of Law and the building of justice and security across Europe. Read below for the full version of de Klerk’s speech given at de Witte on 04 April 2022.

In the last month and a half the European order built in Helsinki has been uprooted. Russia has more and more become a dictatorship. It has started an unforgivable war in Ukraine, and in a war, human rights and the rule of law are per definition out of the window. This comes on top of other disturbing developments that we have witnessed in Europe over the last few years such as the slide toward authoritarian rule, the corruptive influence of dirty money. Let me tell you where we – as Netherlands Helsinki Committee – come from, where we are now and where we intend to go.

The Helsinki process in the 1970s was a Soviet proposal, building originally on a Molotov plan for a pan-European security order. It got some traction in the 1970s. Moscow’s proposal for a conference on security and cooperation in Europe was discussed in Helsinki[1] by local ambassadors and was molded into shape in the spring of 1973 with agreement on the famous baskets and the principles the cooperation should be based on, including “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief”[2]. In June 1973[3] a three-part process was agreed upon: a start-up meeting by Foreign Ministers, meetings (on the different baskets) in Geneva and ultimately a summit. Work in Geneva only started to make progress in the few months before that summit, for which Finland had offered hospitality. In the 1975 Helsinki Final Act the ‘human rights’ principle is elaborated in 8 paragraphs including the statement that ‘the participating States recognize the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States’.[4]

Almost immediately, long-time dissidents and newly inspired activists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union showered their governments with appeals for political reform and protection of human rights. The grand old lady of the Soviet human rights movement, Ludmilla Alexayeva, writes[5] about a scene in early 1976 when Yuri Orlov asks her to meet in front of the Bolshoi Theater. ‘Lyuda, have you read the Helsinki Agreement?’, he asks her. When she says ‘that didn’t impress me’, he says: ‘Don’t you see that this is the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace?’ ‘This implies the possibility to involve other countries in monitoring the Soviet performance on human rights!’ And that was the beginning of the group that became known as the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group. Similar developments happened in other European countries.

While that was primarily an East European phenomenon, what Orlov[6] had seen was that the Helsinki process would create a transnational network that could provide support and backing for the efforts of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and similar groups. In his book Blessuretijd Ed van Thijn[7] tells the story about a trip to Moscow probably shortly after the Helsinki Summit when he was Labour Party parliamentary leader. He had official talks, but also visited a group of dissidents. The results were impressive: he could smuggle out the manuscript for Sacharov’s new book; he could arrange that Andrei Amalrik (Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984?) could study abroad and Jelena Bonner could get the medical operation abroad that she needed.

Perhaps a last historical remark is that pressing for human rights was in no sense an obvious choice. The Ford Administration in the US, including prominently Henry Kissinger, was certainly not a great supporter of the CSCE process. First because it was a Soviet proposal and secondly, because they feared that it would endanger the détente process, which indeed was also important. Even Jimmy Carter originally was not a great proponent, but became one in the course of the election campaign in 1976. As President he insisted on Helsinki compliance, but by and large he had to work against the bureaucracy around him. Typically, Carter wanted to answer a letter from Andrei Sacharov who had written about the arrest of human rights defender Alexandr Ginzburg. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance did everything they could to change the letter in such a way it wouldn’t anger Moscow. That tension between détente and good relations with the Soviet Union on the one hand, and pressing for human rights on the other existed in every capital, probably a bit more in Bonn (Helmut Schmidt) and Paris (Valery Giscard d’Estaing) than in The Hague.

In 1977, shortly after the establishment of Charta 77, Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel traveled to Prague. Van der Stoel’s line was that he would not take the initiative for a meeting with the Charta people, but if they would take the initiative, that would be another matter. He told that to a journalist[8] who promptly informed his Charta friends and that’s how Van der Stoel became the first Foreign Minister to meet the dissidents[9]. The authorities were furious, but Charta spokesman (and philosopher) Jan Patocka thought it was one of the most beautiful moments of his life. Unfortunately it was also one of the last moments of his life: he was interrogated for 9 hours the next day and died of a heart attack.

In the Netherlands it was primarily the NJCM (Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights), who monitored Helsinki compliance in the first decade. In 1982 it helped strengthen the transnational network that was developing by establishing the International Helsinki Federation (IHF), together with similar groups in Canada, France, Norway and the US. The primary impetus for that had come from Andrei Sakharov who had proposed a ‘unified international committee to defend all Group members’. Indeed, the number of organisations that became members of the Federation grew to 46 and for a number of years, the Federation could effectively help Helsinki organisations on the other side of the Iron Curtain[10]. The Federation had high points and low points. A high point was receiving, in 1989 when Karl zu Schwarzenberg was the chairman, the European human rights prize, together with Lech Walesa. The low point was fatal: in 2007 it appeared that the Austrian financial manager of the Federation, Rainer Tannenberger, had been able to embezzle € 1,2 mln, which led to the bankruptcy of the Federation. The Civic Solidarity Platform today functions more or less as its successor[11].

In 1987 in Utrecht[12] Arie Bloed and Pieter van Dijk took the initiative to build a more political organisation for critically following Helsinki implementation both in the East and in the Netherlands. It aimed to contribute towards improving the dialogue and diminishing the tensions between East and West, and wanted to be a link between citizens and the Dutch government in that regard. One of the first activities of this new Netherlands Helsinki Committee was the petition against raising Dutch visa fees as being against the spirit of Helsinki. The Committee initially was chaired by (the late) Peter Baehr, but after half a year he was chosen for the Board of Amnesty International, and Max van der Stoel became his successor. Other Committee members in the early days were for example Wim Spit (NKV/FNV), Jan ter Laak and Kees Flinterman.

Initially the NHC was an action group consisting of a number of volunteers who tried to influence politics here and abroad, but soon after the Berlin wall came tumbling down, opportunities arose for implementing projects in Eastern Europe. Support for Eastern Europe in the early 90’s came initially from multilateral organisations. For civil society, the possibility of getting financial support from the Dutch Foreign Ministry increased with the start of the MATRA-programme in 1994[13]. But then, as now, funds for civil society working in the OSCE area are much more limited compared to those for working within developing countries. Perhaps it is time for some rethinking. Anyway, we were and are grateful for financial support from the Ministry, and in the 1990s the NHC was able to grow financially until it had a budget of €1.2 m in 2003. But when many of the East European states where the NHC was active joined the EU, the money dried up. The list of states where we can implement MATRA projects is now limited to potential candidate member states (Albania; Bosnia-Herzegovina; Kosovo; North Macedonia; Montenegro; Serbia and Turkey) and the states of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia; Azerbaijan; Georgia; Moldavia; Ukraine; Belarus). I should add that all income is for projects, with a small percentage, 7%, for overhead, and that is very difficult to work with. It’s simply not enough, and that is a problem civil society-wide.

Fortunately the last five years we have grown again, and have become less dependent on Foreign Affairs. We diversified considerably, basically by becoming a ‘strategic partner’ of the European Commission, which makes it easier to win Brussels contracts. There are also private donors. The biggest so far – a one-time grant – has been NPL, the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Some of that income makes it easier to work within the European Union, which with developments in Poland and Hungary is very welcome. By the way, the fact that Fidesz has won the election yesterday says primarily something about how Orban has remade the election laws to his liking.[14]

I think I finally arrived at the present. Who imagined two months ago we would have to face a real war on the European continent again. War in the middle of the OSCE area. A war that is not only a humanitarian drama, but also an attack on the fundamental values that the OSCE is built on, and thus a huge challenge for the NHC which is geographically focused on the OSCE area and has a track record of 35 years of fighting for the promotion of human rights and strengthening the rule of law, built on the third Helsinki pillar. This war practically means that there is no space, or hardly any space, to work on human rights and rule of law in three major countries bordering the EU.

I am proud of the work that we were doing in Ukraine, and it’s extremely sad to see all the destruction now. Many of our partners with whom we have been working for many years are forced to flee the country or are hiding in shelters. We are in close contact with them and we try to support them with emergency funds for food, gas and medicines, but of course, all our projects had to stop.

  • In the context of our Human Rights Defence (HRD) programme we worked closely with the ZMINA Human Rights Centre which is not only located in Kyiv, but also in Chernihiv (besieged, being shelled, no water or electricity), Odessa (still bracing for a Russian landing operation from the Black Sea), Bilozerka (near occupied Kherson), Sumy (surrounded by Russian troops, with 10,000 leaving), Lviv (a hub for refugees fleeing to Poland), and Rivne and Khmelnitsky (still relatively safe). Two experts and their families were in Kharkiv, but they managed to leave Ukraine.
  • In the context of our Integrity and Accountability (I&A) programme, over the past 2,5 years alone, 115 Ukrainian participants took part in recent years in our Rule of Law training programme.
  • And finally, our Criminal Justice Reform (CJR) programme focused on setting up a nationwideoperating probation service, in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, and provides support for vulnerable groups in closed institutions all over Ukraine in cooperation with People in Need. This includes support to a psychiatric clinic in Chernihiv and a social care home in Mariupol. We fear for the people in our network, in general, but also because we see that activists are increasingly targeted and abducted.

And let’s not forget about Russia and Belarus. For our partners from Belarus and Russia, the war comes on top of an already very repressive environment for civil society. Our partners from Belarus who found refuge in Ukraine in the aftermath of the massive wave of political persecution of those speaking out against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime following the presidential election of August 2020, had to flee again. Colleagues from civil society organisations in Russia are also forced to flee, as Putin’s regime made voicing any dissent virtually impossible, under the penalty of many years of imprisonment or facing intimidation and violence.

So the war has had quite an impact on our work. At the same time, the organization is more motivated than ever to continue its efforts. There are still many countries left where we can work on our mission: to create open and just societies. The NHC is a bridge-building organisation, up to a point, we don’t build the famous bridge to nowhere. We work on achieving real results. We continue to support humane and alternative sanctioning in our Criminal Justice Reform programme. In Kosovo for example we managed to set up a safe prison environment that enabled juveniles to study. One of them is now a third-year student in law and criminology – while still in prison. In Albania (thanks to our MATRA programme) dealing with hate crime against LGBTIQ+ persons was included in the national curriculum of the police academy. Montenegro now has a probation service, thanks to a MATRA-funded programme we implemented.

We also continue to support Human Rights Defenders, so their voices are amplified and they can be a countervailing power, holding governments to account. This is not only an issue in faraway countries. Also in the EU we have homework to do, and we are lucky to work together with our partners in the Civic Solidarity Platform, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which is in a tough spot, as you can understand. Its director, Marta Pardavi[15], has been put on billboards next to George Soros as the incarnation of the devil.

And we continue with our Integrity & Accountability programme, which includes our successful Rule of Law training programme I already mentioned, which we have organized in recent years together with the University of Leiden and The Hague Academy (the internal branch of the Association of Dutch Municipalities). Over the past 2,5 years almost 700 civil servants from 11 countries were trained on topics like integrity, human rights and minorities, public finance management, decentralization and citizens participation, detention and alternative sanctions, public procurement, and freedom of the media. We are proud that this programme has become a real brand in the region. Most participants say afterwards when asked, that it has helped them in their career and also has helped the organisation they work in. The Dutch Foreign Ministry stews over formulating a new MATRA round, and of course, we hope we get another chance to roll out the programme.

It’s not business as usual these days, and we have to adapt to new realities. We will look for new and innovative ways to keep the flame of human rights alive, also when this is difficult in countries like Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. We will work with Human Rights Defenders and support them, so they can continue their work in exile or in their own country. For example, together with some of them, we are exploring whether we could play a role in submitting evidence of war crimes – in Bucha and many other places – to the ICC.

For years we have known[16] how the Putin regime has involved many oligarchs in sluicing huge sums of money from A to B to finance projects that were not allowed to see the light of day. It goes without saying that none of these oligarchs has been punished for such corrupt practices. The NHC has actively worked with the Expert Group on Transborder Corruption to map Russia’s corruption and its impact on Europe[17]. The problem is, of course, that in order for transborder justice to work, you need the cooperation of the country where the wealth has been collected, Russia. And Russia, not surprisingly, refused all cooperation. The Ukraine war and the sanctioning of oligarchs has all of a sudden accelerated developments in this area. It is fascinating how Brussels now has agreed on sanctions, political sanction measures, I should add, that not necessarily will pass the rule of law test, but certainly will help our anti-corruption work which will only become more important. The scale is gigantic, not only in terms of finance but also in terms of clout in political circles in the West[18].

The Hague, as a city of international law and peace has a role to play. Together with our neighbours Justice & Peace and the Human Security Collective, we are working to create a Human Rights Space at the Riviervismarkt, a vibrant place for debate, learning and exchange, on the topics that are so relevant today, with the people from the region that now have to flee and come our way.

We need more critical debate, and we need to look in the mirror as well. We intend to be more active in the Netherlands, like the Netherlands Helsinki Committee did from the start, without of course duplicating what others are already doing. I just need to say ‘toeslagenaffaire’ and we all know the sort of problems we are facing. Some of them can be better called human rights issues, other are better described as civil rights issues[19], but often they have to do with computerized rule-based systems and how they relate to individuals. Personally, I was very impressed by the introduction the National Ombudsman held for the Committee recently in which he analysed the implications of decentralisation of governmental tasks in the Netherlands, and the subsequent outsourcing of these tasks by local administrations. The question then was: in such situations, can citizens still claim their rights?

Let me end with a few words on the future. The future of the OSCE. The war also has implications for the OSCE, which is more or less the last European organisation where Russia meets with others. The Polish Chairman in Office and Secretary General Helga Schmid have reacted firmly and condemned the invasion in strong terms. It is difficult to imagine that Russia under Putin would take an active role in the OSCE, and what is the OSCE without Russia? Difficult to imagine. Personally, I am not in favour of kicking Russia out. By and large, the arguments for that can be found in a piece of the Crisis Group on the website of Security and Human Rights, our magazine that used to be called the Helsinki Monitor and that is now the only online NGO magazine that is widely read in Vienna. The lesson of Helsinki is that you have to take the long view.

And with regard to the future of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, I can assure you that the spirit of Helsinki is alive and kicking in our office, the spirit of Helsinki that was formed in the strong transnational network of civil society groups that resulted from the Helsinki Summit of 1975. To keep these bonds strong, in Ukraine, in Hungary, in Poland and other states where we have partners, we need all the support we can get, also yours. Let me end by quoting Lyudmina Yankina of ZMINA, the partner organisation I mentioned, who wrote to us some days ago: “Now I am sitting in a bomb shelter, studying checkpoints, making a logistics map for tomorrow and dreaming about what my peacetime will be like. The sirens do not stop howling, but I no longer have the strength to be afraid of them. Life is too beautiful even in war to spend it in fear.” Inspired by the courage of our Ukrainian colleagues we will continue our work in Building and securing justice across Europe.

[1] Otaniemi near Helsinki, to be precise.

[2] Although the words ‘human rights’ do not appear in the agenda of the Third Basket, there it’s about human contacts, co-operation and exchanges in the field of culture etc. The 1973 formulation became Principle VII in 1975.

[3] In the famous Blue Book.

[4] The Soviet Union did not succeed in restricting human rights by referring to national laws and the International Human Rights Covenants.

[5] In her book The Thaw Generation (1990)

[6] He died on 27 September 2020 in Ithaca, New York.

[7] Netherlands Helsinki Committee member for a long time.

[8] Dick Verkijk

[9] And that’s why there is a Max van der Stoel Park in Prague.

[10] Formally the goals were: (a) to publicize and promote compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and its Follow-up Documents; with international legal obligations undertaken in the Council of Europe and United Nations; and with human rights norms promoted by the European Union; (b) to strengthen, assist and coordinate the efforts of its members and other affiliates to monitor compliance by the participating States with legally and politically binding human rights instruments; (c) to support the development of democratic institutions, the promotion of the rule of law, human rights and human rights education.”

[11] For the last decade or so NHC managed the CSP secretariat.

[12] Statute dated 30 September 1987.

[13] Before that, one had smaller programmes like PSO and Tagos.

[14] See

[15] Formally one of the co-directors.

[16] See for example Catherine Belton, Putin’s Friends

[17] See the report ‘Tackling Russian Elite’s Corruption: Mission Impossible?

[18] Anders Åslund, Julia Friedlander, Defending the United States against Russian dark money, Atlantic Council, 2020.

[19] Civil rights are an extra layer on top of (universal) human rights. Civil rights are the rights of persons living legally in the Netherlands. The rights of others in the Netherlands are limited, see the ‘bed, bad, brood’ discussion.