Last week Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, causing a diplomatic row between Iran and several Arab Sunni countries. Immediately Dutch parliamentarians asked the Dutch government questions about this, and the Dutch government in turn sent its human rights ambassador to Riyadh. This is how I think the conversation between the Dutch envoy and the representative of the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs more or less went:
Dutch Envoy (NL): Good afternoon, I am the envoy on behalf of the Dutch to talk about your domestic politics.
Saudi Representative (SA): Welcome to our country. The Dutch you say… The Dutch… Oh! You mean the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg?
NL: No, the Dutch.
SA: Hmm… No, sorry, does not ring a bell. The Dutch… Wait, Deutschland? You are from Germany!? What an honour to receive you, on behalf of such a great nation!
NL: No. Not the Germans, the Dutch. From the Netherlands.
SA: Oh. No, sorry, I have never heard of that country.
NL: The Netherlands, you know, Holland.
SA: Oh, Holland. Amsterdam! That cesspit of sin, that Sodom and Gomorra.
NL: Yes, that is us! Wait…
SA: Welcome to our Islamic and virtuous country.
NL: Thank you. I have come to say that we reject the execution of 47 individuals.
SA: How do you reject that?
NL: Strongly! So, I have come to complain about your disrespect of universal human rights.
SA: Universal human rights? Hmm… No, does not ring a bell.
NL: It is a set of rights that all human beings have, such as freedom of speech, or freedom of association.
SA: Let me look in the Quran… No, it does not mention universal human rights. Universal you say? That seems odd, you would expect that such an important thing would be in the Quran. I doubt those human rights you are talking about are universal, only those things emanating from the one and true God are universal.
NL: No, really they are! They have been adopted by the United Nations. They’re like super duper important. The USA also supports them.
SA: The USA, you say? You mean that country that executed 30 people last year? They must be outraged that we executed people!
NL: Yes. The very same!
SA: So you suggest that we should halt policies that make our King very popular in his country, and that show a tough line against what we see as subversive elements in our society, right now when oil prices, a source of income on which we are completely dependent, are dropping? Because the Netherlands, a country 4500km away from us, with an army it has underfunded so badly that it does not have tanks, somehow thinks it has the right to interfere in our domestic affairs?
NL: Yes. Exactly.
SA: So which army are you bringing?
NL: Well, like I said, the UN also supports human rights…
SA: The UN you say? Oh, no! Not the UN. Now we are scared! Especially because the UN subscribes to the principle of national sovereignty.
SA: I have the feeling our norms and values are incommensurable. But, you know what? We will put this idea of universal human rights right on the fridge, so that everyone can look at them, together with all the songs Ringo wrote for the Beatles!
In other words, I think sending this envoy is a total joke. It fails to appreciate how mindbogglingly unimportant the Netherlands is to Saudi Arabia, especially if it only sends someone to complain about their human rights records. Not only do they not subscribe to the same human rights as the Netherlands does, it also could not care less about those complaints. They just executed 47 people without as much as blinking an eye. They only respond to force, something which we are unwilling (and should not be willing) to use. So, the only thing this envoy has succeeded in doing is showing the whole world that the Netherlands loves to poke its nose into other people’s business and gets a high from taking the moral high ground. Well done Minister Koenders, everyone is laughing at us behind our backs!