Statement on the Death of Max van der Stoel

Statement on the Death of Max van der Stoel

Hon.
Benjamin L. Cardin
United States
Senate
112th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Mr. President, as the Senate Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I rise today to pay tribute to Max van der Stoel, the first High Commissioner on National Minorities at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who died last week at his home in The Hague at the age of 86. Van der Stoel, a two-time Dutch foreign minister, worked tirelessly throughout the OSCE region as High Commissioner from 1992 to 2001 to prevent crises involving minority issues. 

Max van der Stoel had a life-long commitment to human rights. From his early life in Nazi-occupied Netherlands to defining moments spent with Soviet-era dissidents, van der Stoel was deeply affected by the abuses he witnessed. He described one such encounter, in then-Czechoslovakia in 1977, when as foreign minister he met with Charter 77 activist, Jan Patocka in full view of Czechoslovak authorities. Van der Stoel commented that, “This support was of great concern to the Communist authorities. After our short meeting, Professor Patocka was arrested and rigorously interrogated. He died of a heart attack the next day.” 

Following the first Gulf War, van der Stoel was appointed UN Human Rights Representative for Iraq, and he continued to raise human rights concerns in Iraq throughout the 1990s. 

In 1992, he was appointed as the OSCE’s first High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), with a mandate aimed at preventing conflict through quiet diplomacy and early warning to the OSCE countries. His successes in that role are largely unrecognized, as they lie in what did not happen rather than in what did. He traveled to countries where tensions were rising, encouraged dialogue, and made practical recommendations to address underlying issues related to ethnic tension. 

He worked in Estonia and Latvia in the early 1990s to address the processing for acquiring citizenship – which at the time disadvantaged particularly ethnic Russians in the newly independent states because of stringent language testing. He was the OSCE Chairmanship’s Personal Representative on Kosovo – although unfortunately his early warnings in 1997 and 1998 went unheeded by policymakers. His work on inter-ethnic relations and education in Macedonia resulted in the establishment of the South Eastern European University in Tetovo in 2001, which is still a model for integrated education. Throughout his time as HCNM, he promoted rights for Roma, the single largest minority in the OSCE region as a whole. 

His job was not easy, but his integrity, commitment, and diplomatic skills paved the way for his successors and built the position of the HCNM into one of the most effective OSCE tools for conflict prevention. His legacy to the OSCE is not only the work he did as HCNM, but the advice he left behind on the importance of early action to prevent conflict. 

In his last statement to the OSCE Permanent Council in 2001, he said, “Governments should see the self interest in protecting minority rights and living in peaceful and prosperous multi-ethnic states. The only people who profit from inter-ethnic conflict are nationalist entrepreneurs. That is not a business that reaps long term profits. In the end, intolerance, violence and instability hurt us all. 

“I maintain that preventing inter-ethnic conflict will continue to be one of the organization's biggest challenges in the near future. Despite improvements in many OSCE states, conflicts still rage and tensions boil below the surface. We have to sharpen our tools and invest sufficient resources to ensure that we remain on the cutting edge of conflict prevention. ... Collectively, we must do more to act in response to the warning signs. It is not enough to admonish States for falling short of their commitments. A concerted response by the international community must be resolute, targeted, and timely. 

“...When a crisis becomes acute, everyone wonders what went wrong or what steps should be taken to contain the situation. Things do not need to get to that point. While Foreign Ministries seem to be increasingly sensitive to the benefits of relatively limited funding, treasuries are still hesitant to invest in preventing the conflicts of tomorrow. We need to put our money where our mouth is. It makes political and financial sense to put resources into keeping multi-ethnic states together, rather than bailing them out after they have fallen apart.” 

His words are as timely and relevant today as they were ten years ago. It is my hope that, inspired by the dedication and accomplishments of Max van der Stoel, the United States and its allies will strive to ensure that ethic tension and human rights violations are not allowed to fester until they erupt into conflict. Thank you, Mr. President.

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