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Reflections on “The Future of Human Rights in times of War in Europe”

22 December 2022

On the 07 December, the NHC marked 35 years of promoting human rights, strengthening the rule of law, and supporting catalysts of change by hosting an evening of reflection and debate on “The Future of Human Rights in Times of War in Europe”. We were honored to have Executive Director of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, Oleksandra (Sasha) Romantsova, as our keynote speaker for the event. Following her speech, Sasha engaged in a panel discussion Professor of International Human Rights at the University of Amsterdam, commissioner of the Netherlands Human Rights Institute and & member of the UN Human Rights Committee Yvonne Donders, and Senior Human Rights Policy Officer at Amnesty International, Julia Ivan. They were joined on stage by  Małgorzata Szuleka of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, Human Rights Ambassador of the Netherlands, Bahia Tahzib-Lie, NHC’s Executive Director Kirsten Meijer and Supervisory Board member, Anne Maljers, and last but not least, Leila Prnjavorac, who skillfully moderated the event.

A key takeaway and reoccurring theme of the event was light shining through the darkness.

As Kirsten Meijer noted during her welcome address;

despite the dark times we are living in, there is also still light and hope and perseverance. And this gives us, at the NHC the energy to do our job, which is to inspire, engage and support Catalysts of Change to build just societies in wider Europe.

Kirsten went on to define these catalysts of change that the NHC focuses on supporting through our work:

The beautiful thing is that Catalysts of Change are of all times and can be everywhere. Catalysts of Change are the giants of the past that still inspire us today; like the founders of the NHC, including Max van der Stoel, who was one of the first Western officials that had the courage to meet dissidents of Charta77 in Prague in the midst of the Cold War. Building bridges between the East and the West has become more relevant than ever again. Catalysts of Change are the brave human rights defenders that continue their work under the most difficult circumstances, and sometimes pay a very high price for that. And catalysts of change are also the almost 1.000 civil servants from 11 countries participating in our Rule of Law training programme over the past 5 years. The importance of strengthening the capacities of a new generation of reform minded professionals cannot be underestimated.  The NHC works with and supports these Catalysts of Change, sometimes openly, but also increasingly under the radar, and this support is still very much needed today.

Sasha’s keynote address left us with these powerful words:

When you put a price on human rights and start negotiating standards in favour of the price of oil, war will be the inevitable result. This is what Ukrainian people are fighting for now. Not because fighting is in our DNA, as some like to say, but because we chose the path of democracy and self-determination over that of authoritarianism and dictatorship. This is why human rights defenders won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And this is something that was always well understood within the Helsinki Movement – human rights are irrevocably linked with security and peace, and the only way to achieve lasting peace is to uphold human rights standards. Not because they are a ‘nice to have’, or something we need to achieve to live in heaven, but because they are the minimum we need so we don’t live in hell.

The panel discussion that ensued focused around 3 key questions:

  1. What do you see as the biggest challenges & trends facing the human rights movement in wider Europe at the moment, especially since 24 February 2022?
  2. How do we, in this time that the universality of human rights is under increased pressure, increase the support base for democracy and human rights? How to we handle these trends and challenges as a human rights movement, what does this ask of us?
  3. What gives you hope for the future, and what do you hope the future of the human rights movement in Europe will look like in 5-10, or even 35 years from now?

I am coming from a country not yet mentioned, I am Hungarian and ashamed to be Hungarian here today. This shame is aggravated by the very interesting questions Sasha asked: what happens when we put a price on human rights?

It is this that constitutes the biggest threat to human rights – when politicians or decision maker try to put a price on things that are invaluable – like peace, freedom; and in turn completely highjack the discussion with their populist agenda.

Right now, we are not just fighting repression but also fake news and blunt lies. We need to think of ways to reframe the narrative. To show everyone that their human rights matter, and hear them out beyond legal frameworks in order to successfully deconstruct populist movements. To see what motivates people and what values are driving them. If we think of this, we are sure to find the light spots.

The values that organisation of the Helsinki family represent are actually universal values, understood and appreciated by people of all walks of life. Most people value peace, love, connection, these are simple things. As human rights defenders growing up in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were so hoping that we were on the right track and on the path of progress, not to have to go back and fight the evident things. But I think we have to go back there and open up the human rights movement and narrative, to bring it back to those universal values understood by all. – Julia Ivan

We need to look beyond the law. We need to look at what human rights mean for people in daily life. We need to understand and reiterate that Human Rights Defenders are everywhere. Most of them don’t call themselves that. Because it is dangerous, but also because they consider their work important in its own right. As mentioned here tonight, human rights defenders most often do their work in silence, but with great courage. They call themselves a teacher, nurse, doctor, but what they do is the essence of human rights defence.

I wouldn’t say there is a lack of trust in human rights as a concept, but a bit of lack of trust in the institutions that are supposed to defend these rights, and some of the people we expect to stand up in defence of these rights. Yet you look everywhere around the world where people are in crisis or poverty, they are always fighting for human rights, and we should keep this in mind when we do our jobs.

The hope I see is that human rights violations no longer go unnoticed. It is not that we can say anymore: ‘we didn’t see it, we didn’t know’. When I talk to my students at University of Amsterdam, I always tell them – if you want quick results and a big ‘hurrah’, stop doing human rights. Human rights is slow, often invisible work that takes a long time. But it is always worth it. Keep at it. – Yvonne Donders

Reflections on the importance of the Helsinki Movement

In her conversation with Leila, Małgorzata Szuleka, Secretary of the Management Board and Head of Advocacy at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, reflected on the importance and relevance of the Helsinki movement and ‘family’ of organisations.

Today is a good occasion to cast our memories back and reflect on the history. In my opinion, the Helsinki movement is the silent hero of the human rights movement.

How have we managed to stay alive and relevant? Thanks to the people. In the early days, these were prominent dissidents – mainly nuclear physicists – such as Sakharov. Right now organisations are institutionalized across the region that share same mission and vision. On an occasion like this, when we get a chance to zoom out, we realize that we wouldn’t be able to carry on our work without the Helsinki family. The one thing that other organisations do, as is that they amplify our voice. They can talk the talk and walk the walk with us.


These are dark days, literally and figuratively. There is a lot at stake. But I think the moral compass installed in the movement, the backbone of the Helsinki movement across Europe will guide us. We remain true to our mission and most importantly we remain in solidarity to our partners

With that in hand and with such clear guidance the human rights movement will remain. The question is if state administrations will be on the same page as us. But even if not we are well equipped to face them and the challenges of the future, in solidarity and cooperation.

NHC Staff with Sasha Romantsova during the 35th anniversary event

A human rights movement for the future

This is what the NHC is about: It’s about amplifying and strengthening the voices of human rights defenders, and joining forces to hold governments to account. And it’s about building bridges between different parties in order to learn, exchange, connect and work together. We refuse to give up because circumstances are too difficult. It’s the opposite. We are more motivated than ever to do our job, and we see many opportunities to do so.

Everybody can be a catalyst of change. It can also be you. You all have a role to play: by speaking out against injustice, by supporting the work of organisations like ours and by upholding ethical standards and acting with integrity in your daily life.

Let’s not forget what a privilege it is to be able to come together, to connect and to inspire each other. Let’s celebrate that we can look back in freedom and learn from the past,  let’s build bridges between the East and the West and contribute to creating a strong human rights movement for the future.

We look forward to sharing  more indepth reflections from the conference in the following weeks.

Find out more about our work in Ukraine and how you can support us.