At a ceremony in The Hague, Mexican human rights activist Graciela Pérez Rodriguez recieved the 2017 Human Rights Tulip. The prize is awarded every year by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to recognize and encourage individuals or organisations anywhere in the world who are using innovative ways to advance the course of justice.
Above the heads of the audience hung a special exhibition of shoes from Mexico. Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra described them “eighty pairs of worn-out shoes. Shoes worn by desperate relatives: Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters – all searching for their missing loved ones. These shoes embody their grief and despair. Their agony of ‘not knowing’. But they also embody their determination. Determination to find their loved ones – some have been missing for half a lifetime”.
He was describing the work of Graciela, who founded a Forensic Citizen Science project aimed at supporting relatives with information about their missing loved ones. She has worked tirelessly as an advocate for the families of Mexico’s “desaparecido” or disappeared, many claimed by the country’s decade-long war on drugs. Official estimates put the number of disappeared at 28,161 but activists, citing years of vicious drug wars, say the real figure is likely much higher.
Video: The moment Mexican human rights activist Graciela Pérez Rodriguez received the 2017 Human Rights Tulip from Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra
Justice Hub caught up with the minister moments after he officially handed this year’s Human Rights Tulip to Graciela.
Justice Hub: In your speech, you said that ‘All the reports agree: the space for civil society is shrinking’. So what is the Netherlands doing in order to try and expand that for human rights defenders?
Of course, in the international context, we always talk to governments of countries where human rights are a bit of a problem. We always address the human rights issue. We have also increased the international budget for the Human Rights Fund which supports projects in other countries for human rights defenders. This way, with little steps, we try to improve human rights all over the world.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra during the interview.
Justice Hub: You also spoke about human rights “fighters” rather than “defenders”. How far do you think they should be fighting?
I think in a lot of countries it is not about defending because there is just a very low level of human rights and sometimes there is nothing, and then you are really fighting to get human rights. In European countries, I think you can speak of defending human rights. People like Graciela today who is living in an area where there is so much crime, there is an injustice, there is no rule of law, then you are fighting for your human rights.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra answers journalists’ questions after the award ceremony.
Justice Hub: What would you expect the benefit to be of this kind of a prize for someone like Graciela? Not necessarily for her personally but in general. Why does the Netherlands bother with such a prize?
We should always bother because by awarding someone like Graciela, you are not awarding just one person, you are awarding all those people who fight for their human rights. In Graciela’s case, she represents all the people who do it together with her in Mexico and also all those human rights fighters all over the world. On one side it is strange if you just award one person but you always need a symbol. Today, Graciela is the symbol for all the human rights fighters and defenders in the world.
Watch out for our interview with Graciela later this month.
Photos: Janet Anderson