Max van der Stoel – In memoriam

24 August 1924 - 23 April 2011


The Dutch politician and diplomat Max van der Stoel was the chairman of the Fund for Central and East European Book Projects (CEEBP) from 1995 until 1998. His ideals fitted seamlessly with CEEBP’s mission, its support for free expression and exchange of ideas across borders.

“Max van der Stoel saw it as his life-long task to defend the cause of freedom and human rights. As a member of Parliament, and as Foreign Secretary, he spoke out against both leftwing and rightwing dictatorships,” wrote his biographer in her obituary. (Anet Bleich in De Volkskrant 26 April 2011)

In its editorial, headlined “The Man of Human Rights”,  NRC Handelsblad described him very aptly: “Van der Stoel was driven by ideals rather than by an ideology. To say Max van der Stoel is to say human rights. Human rights as an instrument as well as a goal, because without human rights there can be no democratic rule of law, and vice versa.”… Whether it concerned Greece under the colonels, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or communist countries, “Van der Stoel was indefatigable in his stand against injustice be it in leftist, rightist or other dictatorships, and kept a sharp eye on the result of his efforts.”

As Herman Amelink wrote on the same pages: “At the outbreak of World War II, he was in high school and later studied law at the University of Leiden. The Nazis executed the head of his elementary school, a professor and the co-Chancellor of Leiden University. During his student years he visited Czechoslovakia, both before and after the communist takeover. The experience with national-socialism and with communism left an indelible mark on his views regarding human rights and international relations. … He was a full-blooded Atlanticus, and was firmly against the idea of a European nuclear power. Strengthening  European identity, yes, but only within Atlantic cooperation.”  (NRC Handelsblad 26 April 2011)

“He had been a social-democrat in heart and soul since his youth, but the New Left could not forgive him for not seeing the communist DDR as “the better Germany”, and for wanting to keep The Netherlands within NATO.” “Later, as High Commissioner for Minorities, he travelled tirelessly, in an effort to make governments, especially in Eastern Europe, treat their minorities decently.” (Anet Bleich in De Volkskrant)

Frans Timmermans (Dutch parliamentarian, Van der Stoel’s assistant during the former’s tenure as High Commissioner for National Minorities at the OSCE, who became a lifelong friend) characterised what he called the “Van der Stoel Method” as combining idealism with pragmatism: “Combating injustice became his life’s work, with law as his instrument. He had an unshakeable belief in the rule of law developed in a democratic constitutional state. ... He combined this idealistic principle with a very pragmatic approach and an unqualified respect for the facts. ... (Van der Stoel) put Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim into practice: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ He took care that none of the parties would lose face and that not he but the parties themselves would be seen as peacemakers.” (NRC Handelsblad 26 April 2011)

The Czech sociologist and Charta 77 signatory Jiřina Šiklová wrote in her In memoriam of Max van der Stoel, who came on an official visit to Prague in March 1977 as The Netherlands Foreign Minister, just a few months after the Czechoslovak human rights movement was launched in January with the manifesto Charta 77 that called on the communist regime to respect human rights:

“At last, somebody from the West arrived and talked officially with people from the opposition (ed. note: spokesmen of Charta 77). That was the best thing that could have happened to us, we couldn’t have dreamed of anything better. Repression against all the signatories of Charta 77 and ongoing slander raged after the Charta 77 document was made public in January. … The joy and the encouragement we received (from Max van der Stoel) was soon overshadowed by the sad news of the death of Charta 77 spokesman, the philosopher Jan Patočka. He died after repeated interrogations by State Security officials following his conversation with Max van der Stoel. … We shall always gratefully remember how Max van der Stoel openly demonstrated that  people in the opposition were partners too in the dialogue on human rights. … From the start of East-West detente, he was among those who insisted on including human rights in the Helsinki accords. … Now this benefactor has died. And I ask myself whether we thanked him enough for his efforts and assistance while he was alive.” (Lidové noviny, Prague, 29 April 2011)

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