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Home » A reflection on human rights and migration by chairperson Jan Henneman
12-01-24

A reflection on human rights and migration by chairperson Jan Henneman

Last December, Justice & Peace celebrated its 55th anniversary alongside current and former team members and partners. As part of the celebration, several change makers delved into their experience with Justice & Peace and their journey of inspiring positive change. Among them was Jan Henneman, who in light of International Human Rights Day, shared his vision of hope and accountability for the future of human rights in migration.

A statement on human rights and migration

‘Dear friends, 

In the wake of International Human Rights Day, it is a great pleasure to see all of you here,  celebrating with us our fifty-fifth anniversary. We often associate this age with midlife crisis. You, our friends and partners, know that Justice & Peace, on the contrary, is still fully committed to pursuing its mission of empowering change makers to contribute to sustainable, just, and welcoming societies, defying challenges and adapting to changing conditions. Never a dull moment 

For this occasion, I would like to speak about migration and human rights. Let me first focus on the Geneva Refugee Convention, which is since 1951 the leading international instrument for the protection of refugees. I had the pleasure to work three years at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, on leave from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I had been in charge of the asylum and migration desk.  

1. Innovative approaches: Critiques and successes

States have been rather critical of UNHCR’s mandate to oversee the implementation of international refugee law in national asylum policies. At the same time, states have been keen to cooperate with UNHCR in addressing large-scale refugee movements. Two examples from ‘my’ time at UNCHR come to my mind: the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese refugees and the concept of Temporary Protection. The CPA for Indochinese refugees addressed the delicate issue of Vietnamese displaced people. The introduction of Temporary Protection made it possible for states to admit huge numbers of refugees from former Yugoslavia without overwhelming national procedures for individual refugee status determination. Both the CPA and Temporary Protection have been often criticised, but they were innovative and based on rather fruitful cooperation between UNHCR and states. Many refugees have been resettled and granted temporary protection, also in our country.  It was a kind of controlled migration.  

UNHCR’s concept of Temporary Protection got a follow-up in the European Union in its Temporary Protection Directive. The directive was not used, however, until the European Commission activated it – only a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine – giving those fleeing war in Ukraine the right to temporary protection in EU member States. As for the CPA for Vietnamese displaced people, would it ever be possible to arrive together with UNHCR at a kind of comprehensive plan of action for displaced people in the Mediterranean? 

2. Samen Hier: Building welcoming communities against anti-migration sentiments

The Netherlands has been traditionally cooperating with UNHCR in its resettlement policy. Upon their arrival in our country, so-called invited refugees are treated as status holders; as recognised refugees. I greatly value resettlement as a manageable, durable solution for persons in need of international protection,  a safe and legal way to find such protection, also in our country. That is why I hope that with our initiative Samen Hier, Being Together in English, we can increasingly contribute to the implementation of resettlement policy. Samen Hier is based on international best practices to integrate refugees into society and evidence shows that it has the potential to result in a four times win-situation: for individual refugees, local society, municipalities, and central governments.  Eventually, welcoming refugees successfully may contribute to expanding safe and legal routes to our country for those in need of international protection.  

With Samen Hier, Justice & Peace focuses on mobilising welcoming communities for refugees at the local level, notwithstanding the current anti-migration narrative. According to migration expert, Professor Leo Lucassen, such sentiments occur each time we face the arrival of larger numbers of migrants.  In his lecture at the Comenius Commemoration Day 2016, Professor Lucassen gave examples of this pattern in societies’ reactions to such arrivals. Governments, media, and citizens alike welcome them at the beginning. However, when the numbers are increasing, government, media and citizens alike become hesitant, if not critical. Professor Lucassen pointed to the First World War when Belgian refugees came to the Netherlands, and to the arrival of Jewish people from Nazi Germany in the wake of the Second World War. Repatriation of Dutch nationals from forced labour camps in Nazi Germany and later from Indonesia caused similar disarray. The current anti-migration narrative seems to fit in his observations.  

Comenius himself was forced into fleeing the Czech Lands because of the repression of protestants. Upon his arrival in Amsterdam in 1656, the City Council granted him asylum. Comenius must be the only refugee in our country who has been honoured with a mausoleum, situated in Naarden. 

3. Constitutional respect in modern politics

Dear friends, Justice & Peace believes in that we are all change makers. Marga Klompé was one of such change makers. She was the first female cabinet minister in the Netherlands, who introduced groundbreaking social legislation and became our first chairperson, fifty-five years ago. Today, Marga Klompé continues to be a source of inspiration, and we owe her great respect.  

Marga Klompé was also a member of parliament.  Since yesterday, a new parliament is in place. Each of its new members promised, individually and solemnly, to respect our Constitution. Watching the ceremony, I remembered how I took oath myself, upon assuming three different functions. I must admit that I didn’t read our Constitution in advance of the ceremonies, I took its wording for granted.  

But today, our parliamentary elections have given rise to an unprecedented political discussion about the Constitution and the respect it deserves from political parties as a collective and from politicians individually. One of my grandsons asked me about the post-election political turmoil. We talked about democracy and the interrelationship between democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I asked my fourteen-year-old grandson whether he knew the Constitution. ‘Of course’, he said, ‘we studied it at school’. ‘And what is the Constitution about?’, I continued asking him. ‘Well, it starts with fundamental and social rights’, he answered without hesitation. Let us hope that our members of parliament fully realise that, with their vow, they also promised to respect fundamental and social rights and that they don’t take the Constitution for granted. 

4. Importance of upholding fundamental and social rights in parliamentary practices

In a week, it is Naturalisation Day. Municipalities organise ceremonies to welcome persons who receive  Dutch citizenship. When I served as an Ambassador in the Czech Republic, I was asked to organise such a ceremony for a new Dutch citizen. The lady agreed to postpone the ceremony to the Queen’s birthday reception. That is how more than 400 Dutch nationals could witness in Prague our new compatriot promising, I quote ‘to respect the constitutional order of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, its freedoms and rights, and to faithfully fulfil the duties as a Dutch citizen.’ 

You find this Declaration of Solidarity and its explanation on the internet; I recommend  reading its meaningful text. If we ask migrants and refugees who apply for Dutch citizenship to make such a promise, I believe we ourselves should first and foremost respect our Constitution, all of us. 

In my welcome at the ‘Storytelling dinner’, five years ago, I referred to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is twenty years our senior, to the European Treaty and Court on Human Rights, and to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. We have to cherish, propagate and defend these international instruments as they are fundamental to maintaining and enhancing respect for human rights, in our society and worldwide. Let us – in the wake of International Human Rights Day – enjoy being together and working together as change makers!’

Learn more about the Samen Hier initiative

Jan Henneman is the current chairperson of the Board of Justice & Peace. In the past, he has served as Ambassador of the Netherlands current, while is an active member of the Advisory Board of the Stichting Comenius Museum.