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“The rights of others: a blind spot?”

Verslag - Over de grens Blinde Vlek?
Opening met o.a. journalist Rob Wijnberg, film, muziek en meer
Woensdag 16 november 2016 | 19.30 - 22.00 uur | LUX, Nijmegen

Surrounding the ceremony of the Vrede van Nijmegen (Peace treaty of Nijmegen) award – awarded this year to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – a whole series of events has been organized by Radboud Reflects in cooperation with LUX. On November 16th 2017 Hubert Bruls, mayor of Nijmegen, had the honour of opening the first evening in dialogue with writer Lotte Lentes. While the mayor formally introduced the event and pointed to the importance of human rights, the essential role the court has played in maintaining them, and the renewed attention for human rights in the wake of Europe’s refugee crisis, writer Lotte Lentes complemented him with personal stories, both from refugees and citizens in receiving countries. Combining the big questions and the personal stories would remain a recurring theme throughout the evening.

From a philosophical point of view some of the big questions were addressed by Rob Wijnberg, philosopher and journalist and famous for founding De Correspondent. The juridical side was filled in by Tineke Strik, professor in migratory right and senator on behalf of GroenLinks, who was later supplemented by prof. dr. Egbert Myjer, erstwhile judge in the ECHR. The personal stories of refugees, often finding themselves on the edge of the domain of human rights, were neatly weaved into the more abstract stories by means of The Island of All Together, a short film by photographer Marieke van der Velden.

Why do we have borders?

The influx of refugees into Europe has brought the question of borders to the fore once again. From a historical point of view, Rob Wijnberg argued, the existence of borders can be explained partially by natural factors: the simple facts that mountains or oceans divide humanity into various portions of land. Much more important, however, is the psychological origin of borders. Humans, Wijnberg argued with reference to Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, have become more successful than any other species because they have a capability to form much larger groups than animals. We can feel connected not only because someone is a friend or family, but because we hold the same illusion of identity as many others. I can relate to people I have never met or will never meet because they are also Dutch, just like me. Such an illusory collective identity enables humans to work together and progress in much larger groups than animals, but to reinforce such identities we always contrast them with what we are not. That is where borders come into play: we are not only Dutch because of some characteristics we share, but also because we are not German, Belgian, or French. We psychologically create borders to distinguish ourselves from others, and history has made those into physical borders.

In an era of globalisation these borders still exist, but more and more their justification is questioned. We have borders, but can we do without them? Political developments such as Donald Trump’s recent victory would make us believe that many people cannot. Collective identities fade, people feel lost, and hold on to their identity more fiercely than before. Wijnberg, however, answered that yes, we definitely can, but only if we reduce the enormous wealth gap present everywhere in the world. Then, removing borders will make all of us more prosperous and freer.

Human rights across borders

Be that as it may, the existence of borders is right now a fact, as is the existence of refugees. Tineke Strik explained that once a refugee crosses the border of a European country, they have a certain set of rights that states cannot alienate from them. The ECHR serves to constantly reinterpret the Treaty of Human Rights to see what it means in terms of concrete policy. This inevitably means that the rights themselves change, in the sense that major changes in terms of what they mean are possible. Such a change, Strik explained, happened in 1989, when the court ruled that the extradition of persons to countries where they would likely be tortured or given the death penalty was a violation of the European Treaty for Human Rights. But while Syrian refugees cannot be evicted to their home country, many European countries are doing everything they can to avoid having to take them in: building fences, training foreign border guards, and so on. But the European Treaty for Human Rights is what Strik called a “living treaty,” allowing for change in its interpretation. It’s happened before, and it might happen again. Going so far as to require European countries to actively take in refugees it cannot, contended Egbert Myjer, as the ECHR can only reinterpret what is already there, not transform the treaty. But, Myjer said, the treaty does guarantee the entitlement to certain rights as long as refugees are within Europe, including access to food, family, and housing.

The human face

In this complex interplay of factors it becomes easy to forget that we are talking of human beings: persons who experience these issues at first hand on a daily basis. Marieke van der Velden wanted to bring the stories of these persons to the fore by filming encounters between randomly picked tourists and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. The message was one that in times like these is as important as ever: that by talking to each other and listening to each other’s stories we can attain a larger degree of understanding and bring us closer together, despite the borders that may separate us. The question remains open: the borders are there, but should they be there? Rob Wijnberg said no, but erasing them from the earth seems hardly possible at this time. Maybe a world without borders is for now nothing more than a horizon that seems impossible to reach, but is still worth walking towards. In the meantime we should work together to ensure the rights of all in the world of borders, for the time being simply the world we live in.

Report by Maxim van Asseldonk