Balancing Security and Human Rights

On 4 February, The Hague Institute welcomed Dutch Minister of Security and Justice Ard van der Steur to speak on “Counterterrorism and the Rule of Law,” as part of the ongoing Distinguished Speaker Series at the Institute. Noting the rise in violent extremism across the world, Minister Van der Steur stated that countering terrorism is one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Minister Van der Steur observed that violent extremism has become a truly global enterprise, as the main threat to the West no longer comes from nationalists, but global ideologies with local targets. As observed recently by U.S. President Barack Obama, Western countries are threatened less by evil empires than by failed states such as Yemen, Sudan and Syria, as terrorists hide, train and organize in countries without functioning legal orders.

Fostering the rule of law in fragile and conflict-affected states is a critical component of efforts to counter terrorism. In this regard, the Minister complimented the Institute’s internationally focused work, highlighting The Hague Approach Principles. He called attention to Principles 1 (Conflict Prevention) and 2 (Fostering a Rule of Law Culture) in particular. Minister Van der Steur noted that efforts to counter terrorism should center on prevention by minimizing discrimination, political exclusion and unemployment – factors that can facilitate extremism. By fostering a rule of law culture, buttressed by a commitment to accountability, states can challenge extremist ideologies more effectively. Enhancing governance and encouraging respect for human rights in local communities is a central aspect of counterterrorism measures.

Minister Van der Steur outlined the contribution the Netherlands is making to conflict prevention and fostering a rule of law culture abroad. The Dutch army regiments stationed in Mali provide support to the ongoing UN mission in the region, training police and government forces. Dutch police forces in South Sudan protect public safety in refugee camps. In the Western Balkans, Dutch judges train their local counterparts and build partnerships that improve the judiciary and enhance accountability. Local leaders, authorities, community organizers and teachers are key partners in all these efforts.

The Minister observed that rule of law and human rights are best protected when national security is strong. He emphasized, however, that “a victory over terrorism is no longer a victory if human rights are sacrificed.”

In his response to the Minister’s remarks, Dr. Abi Williams, President of The Hague Institute, asked the Minister about why the Netherlands linked the issues of migration and security in the articulation of priorities for its Presidency of the European Union. The Minister responded that while some terrorists have used the migrant influx as an opportunity to return to Europe covertly, this does not mean that every migrant is a terrorist. He highlighted the Dutch tradition of welcoming those who flee because they fear for their lives.

Further questions from the audience led to a lively discussion on how to weigh security measures against freedoms and human rights. To this end, the Minister reminded the audience that proportionality and subsidiarity are important principles used by the state to find the right balance. The Minister explained that the Netherlands is cooperating with the previous and subsequent holders of the EU Presidency to ensure continuity in its approach to counterterrorism. The urgency of the question in the public mind has ensured that many of the obstacles to cooperation that hindered progress in the past can now be overcome.

Further Reading

Active: Fact-Finding in Lebanon

This three-year project, Fact-finding in Lebanon:  The Netherlands Support to Forensic Capability and Uptake in Lebanon, aims to ensure an integrated approach to forensics in…


Completed: Conflict Prevention in The Hague

This pilot project is part of the Institute's international research on City Responsibility: The Role of Municipalities in Conflict Prevention, which aims to understand how municipal…


Active: Distinguished Speaker Series

The Distinguished Speaker Series (DSS) showcases eminent practitioners in international affairs and is the centerpiece of the Institute’s high-level engagement with practitioners and academics in the city…