Burgemeester Welkom Shelter City Human Rights Café

Toespraak burgemeester Jan van Zanen

Utrecht, stadhuis, 15 mei 2018

Dear all, dear members of City Parliament, dear Francis Sakwa,

Welcome to the Netherlands. Welcome to the heart of the Netherlands. The very heart. The city of Utrecht. Welcome cyclists. And again very special welcome to Francis Sakwa. Who – I understand – will also cycle tomorrow. It’s good to have you here in our city, Francis.

Dear brave and sporty cyclists, who came all the way from Deventer today. I can tell you: this is the place to be for a cyclist! Because Utrecht is the second best city for cycling on the planet. Earlier, this city hosted a passage of the Giro d'Italia. In 2015 the Tour de France started here. And the cycling fans among you probably know, that we are hoping to host the start of another big cycling race - the Spanish Vuelta in 2020.

And Utrecht is not only a cycling friendly city. Utrecht is the city that embraces human rights. And has done so for many centuries. We embrace the people ho fight for human rights. Journalists and community leaders. Lawyers, artists and scientists. Defenders of the rights of the people of their communities. People who are fighting for freedom of speech. For equality. For freedom of religion. People pay a high price for their fight. They face persecution. Imprisonment without a legal trial. Their families are threatened. And sometimes killed.

These human rights defenders deserve a safe place. A three months period to catch their breath. Three months away from the daily hassles and threats. In a supportive environment. To feel strengthened and re-energized when they return home. To their families and work.

As a Mayor, I am proud that Utrecht is one of the eleven Shelter Cities. Three years ago, my City’s parliament took the initiative to join the Shelter City network. Up to now, Utrecht has welcomed guests from Zimbabwe, Sudan, Uganda. Kenya, Russia, Somalia, Nicaragua, Colombia and Iraq.

Most of them I have met myself (together with Wien de Smet). I admired their passion and courage. The Shelter City guests are all extremely dedicated professionals. While here, they continue their important work. In a safe and supporting environment. Away from the daily hassles. Away from often life threatening situations. These human rights defenders follow courses to increase their skills. For example, in the areas of safety, data protection and lobbying.

And they add new voices to our discussions. By sharing their insights and expertise with professionals in their own field of work. With government officials. With citizens. They enlarge their network. Here, in Utrecht, the Netherlands and Europe.

Their stories must be heard. Because freedom is so precious. Ten days ago, on the fifth of May, The Netherlands celebrated Liberation Day. The end of  World War II. And the beginning of a new period of peace and freedom. A day we cherish. But actually, we should celebrate our freedom every day. The freedom of speech. One of the fundamental human rights. We need to think about that every day. And we should act on this every day. One of the ways we can engage in the pursuit of freedom is: hearing the voices of human rights defenders. Amplifying their voices. And learning from them how to speak up for human rights. Welcoming the human rights defenders to our cities.

I therefore consider it an honour to meet you here in City Hall, Francis Sakwa... Human rights defender from Kenya. Shelter City guest in the City of Groningen. Again thank you for being here and finally: good luck tomorrow with the Shelter City Bike challenge.