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One year at the NHC: Interview with Executive Director Kirsten Meijer

24 February 2023

It has been a year since Kirsten Meijer joined the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) as our Executive director. 9 days after taking on this new role, the war in Ukraine broke out. Sitting in her office behind a large “Stop the War” poster, she relayed to us her experiences from the past year.

What drew me to the NHC in particular was the work that the organization is doing on human rights, on rule of law, on democracy, the very fundamental values that are so important for humanity.

Respect for human rights are the foundation for a just society and the well-being of individuals. This conviction has always been the main driving factor behind all my work.

I was amazed by the work of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, as well as its historical beginnings during the Cold War period, where they started with supporting the dissidents of the Soviet Union. The Helsinki committees, including the Netherlands Helsinki Committee continues this legacy today by supporting human rights defenders, but also civil society activists and organisations in the European Union and wider Europe.

At the NHC we believe that it is not only about supporting civil society and the people that are holding governments to account but also about supporting governments and the actors in the justice chain to uphold ethical standards and act with integrity. That is also what I think is unique about the NHC, if possible, we build bridges between these groups. We work with both groups, because it is our belief, that catalysts of change can be everywhere. This is also what drew me to the NHC.”

In your first weeks at the NHC Russian troops invaded Ukraine, can you describe that day of the outbreak of the war?

The day Russia invaded Ukraine was a very emotional day. As an organisation having worked for many years with Ukrainian partner organisations, as well as having an international staff that has many ties to the region, we feel very much connected to what is happening there.

We used this emotion to fuel our actions and we immediately started to think about how to support the people in Ukraine. We reached out to our partners, friends, and colleagues to provide emergency aid and any other form of assistance, we lit up our building in yellow and blue, we published statements of solidarity to show that we stand side by side with the people of Ukraine and we have continued to do so.

What values or traits do you value most in your team?

The drive and the commitment of the staff at the NHC to make a change is definitely, what I value most. The idealistic vision to make this world a better place. I think that that is what unites us as a staff. We do our job under quite a lot of pressure and in a context that can often times feel very dark, but we do not give up and that it something that I really admire about our team.

It is amazing to see that we have been able to grow as a team together as well as grow in our work and impact even in this difficult time. I think this shows that we are very much needed and that we have a lot to offer to the world.

You are the NHCs first female director but also in general being a female director in this sector, has that had an impact on your work?

I am very proud to be the NHCs first female director. I think it is important that we have female directors across all sectors and that it is not an exception. I am very much aware of my privileges as a white, university educated woman living in Amsterdam. However, I do know first-hand the struggle and extra work you have to put in as a woman to get into these positions. I have noticed and experienced many implicit and explicit biases. Trying to break these down is an integral part of my mission. By being a female director, you do show that it is possible and I think that is important. It is about time we will also have a female prime minister in the Netherlands!

What do you see on the cards to the NHC for the next year?

We just adopted our new multi-annual strategy. We will continue supporting catalysts for change to build just and rights-respecting societies through our three programmes; Human rights Defence, Integrity and Accountability and Rights-Based Justice. Each program has its own set of expertise, but together we work towards the same goal of supporting catalysts of change and building just societies. We reach out to people who need us most and the people that are on the frontlines of the battle for safeguarding our fundamental rights and values.

These are not only civil society activists and their organisations operating under extremely difficult circumstances such as in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, but also for example those that are incarcerated in countries where penitentiary systems do not always provide acceptable living conditions. It is for these people that we want to stand up and ensure that their rights are respected and promoted.

Civic space is also a topic that we will focus on. Citizens should be able to voice their concerns, be able to organise themselves into organisations, be part of the debate and steer policies into a direction that serves the common good. This is far from reality in wider Europe, first and foremost of course in authoritarian states, but also in the European Union we are witnessing negative trends. Not only in countries such as Poland and Hungary, in the Netherlands too we have to be cautious. Only two weeks ago, we stood side by side with peaceful protesters to safeguard their right to protest. We have to promote and protect civic space. It is the oxygen for any democracy.

What keeps you hopeful?

It is absolutely the people that we support and work with that keep me hopeful.”

Last year December, we celebrated our 35th Anniversary and were honoured to welcome and hear from Oleksandra Romantsova, Executive Director of the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization, Center for Civil Liberties. Her words were very powerful and again reminded me of why we do what we do. These people give me hope. Not only in Ukraine, in Belarus too, where our longstanding partner and Nobel peace prize-winning organisation, Viasna has been facing an uphill battle against the state after being closed down and facing prison sentences. Yet despite all of this, they continue fighting. I think if they can continue to do this job, then we also can also continue our job.

There remains the promise that in the end, the light will be stronger than the dark and we will continue to believe in this.”