Interview with retired senior Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum

Peter van Walsum (©

In 1999 and 2000, Peter van Walsum (1934-2019) served as the Dutch ambassador to the United Nations, at a time when the Netherlands had a seat on the Security Council.

Much of the interview focuses on Africa. Van Walsum didn’t know much about the continent, but he tried to inform himself and recounts how that affected him and his work at the United Nations. He also discussed the workings of the Security Council, the influence and power of its president, the world body’s new peace-keeping approach, his disagreements with the Dutch government over policy issues, the Srebrenica trauma and how it affected Dutch (un)willingness to take part in peace-keeping operations, especially in Sierra Leone (van Walsum’s idea).

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: May 5, 2001

For a half-hour version of the interview, click here.



My name is Peter van Walsum. I am a retired civil servant, but I was a Dutch diplomat for several years, the last two years – that is to say 1999 and 2000 – I represented the Netherlands on the Security Council. EB: One of the things you did when you were on the Security Council, the Dutch government had decided to make Africa one of its priorities. Can you tell me what the thinking was behind the Dutch policy? It was to a certain extent a reaction to the fact that there had not really been a clear Africa policy apart from development cooperation. Africa has always been extremely important in the field of development cooperation. The Netherlands is one of the few countries that really succeeds in spending .8% of its gross national product on development cooperation, and a very large part of that goes to Africa. But there was not a coherent Africa policy, and the foreign minister, Mr. van Aartsen, had a very strong ambition to develop something of the sort. Well, if you want to develop an Africa policy, it’s very good to start by saying that you consider Africa important, and that’s the first step towards an Africa policy. 

Embarrassing ignorance about Africa

 EB: When you went to the Security Council, what did you yourself know about Africa? I knew very little about Africa. I knew as much as you can expect every civil servant to know and that’s slightly more than what the average newspaper reader knows, but I had never been to Africa, which is unusual. Most of my colleagues had at least one posting in Africa. I for some reason had never been there, with the exception of a short one-day visits to Cairo, Tripoli and Cabo Verde. So I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa at all. EB: Wasn’t it a bit strange for you to be in the Security Council where Africa frequently comes up in the discussions and to be making decisions, to be talking about a continent which you knew very, very little about? Yes, I experienced that as not just strange but positively embarrassing. By the grace of the alphabetical order, I was always sitting next to Ambassador Njaba (sp?) of Namibia. He could hardly believe that the representative of a country who had been so active in the field of development cooperation to his own country as well that I had never been to Africa, and that started to bother me. So in the beginning of 2000, January 2000, which was the second year of my tenure at the Security Council, I went to see the Dutch foreign minister, and I said “look, I cannot function if I don’t know more about Africa. So I intend to make a few trips there.” And he said, “by all means. Go ahead.” So I made two major trips: first to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and second to Sierra Leone and Liberia. And subsequently I did the same thing over again, the Kinshasa trip, including all the signatories of the Lusaka agreement I did in the context of the Security Council mission under the chairmanship of Dick Holbrooke EB: The Lusaka Agreement was to bring about peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right. The second trip in the Security Council context was to the West African countries – I mentioned Sierra Leone and Liberia, but then we also went to Guinea and even to Nigeria and to Mali. EB: Arriving in Africa the first time, what was it like? I had been to tropical countries before, so that was not so much of a shock, but Kinshasa is quite an unusual place to arrive in. It is…I needn’t explain what Kinshasa is like. A lot of things don’t function well in Kinshasa. On the other hand, surprisingly, I remember my first impression when I entered the hotel. We stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. I went to the desk, and I wanted to send a card to my daughter whose birthday was approaching. I asked for cards. They said, no we have no postcards here. I said never mind, but could I have a stamp? They said we have no stamps here. And I discovered there was no postal service to speak of. But then I went into my room, and I switched on the television, and I looked at CNN or BBC, I forget, CNN I believe. It’s surprising. But it’s not only in Africa, of course. In many developing countries, you have these contradictions. 

Encounters in Africa

EB: What about meeting people in Africa?  I must say I was in a very fortunate position because as a member of the Security Council, you have incredible access. You can see, in all the countries where I’ve been, I’ve been able to see the head of state or the head of government if that is appropriate like in Ethiopia, where one doesn’t see the president but the prime minister. But apart from that, I can say I have seen the top man in every African country. So my experience is not that of the typical first visitor to Kinshasa but I did see President Kabila very soon after arrival. It’s difficult to generalise all the visits. But I have had extremely interesting conversations all over Africa. I can only say that if one has never been to Africa somehow one doesn’t realise, I believe, how incredibly clever and sophisticated all those people are. This may sound awful, as though I expected to find sort of backward people from the jungle, but it is more than that. I always wonder in these conversations I’ve had there with several people whether we do not appear relatively stupid to them when we come with our limited experience and talk about African problems for the first time. EB: Can you give me an example? Well, the point is I always have a feeling that we may sound extremely naive. There’s always a second layer, a third layer and a fourth layer under the reality we’re discussing, and I have a feeling that the people you are talking to are so much aware of these layers that they must assume that we are stuck in the first or the second layer. But it’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly it is. But let me put it this way: I certainly didn’t feel in any way superior, but how could I feel that because they know the scene and I don’t, but I was impressed by the ability to dig below these layers and to be aware of realities beyond the reality that one sees. I think we should all be aware of that. But I was impressed by how clever everyone seemed to be. EB: You say it’s difficult to pinpoint that, but it remains quite abstract for somebody who has never been to Africa. Can you give at least one example of these different layers and how that worked? That’s not so easy because I don’t think I can identify a specific problem right now off hand. 

Meeting “ordinary” people

EB: You said as the Dutch ambassador to the UN and as a member of the Security Council, you had access to the leaders. There’s often a big gap between the leaders and the ordinary people in Africa. Did you also get a chance to meet ordinary people and talk to them about their lives, their concerns, those types of things? Yes, but you must be of course be aware that even the ordinary people one meets are not that ordinary. We had meetings with representatives of civil society. We met representatives of the private sector and NGOs. None of that is entirely ordinary, but it is a wide spectrum. One does hear many different views. In Kinshasa, what struck me most was the incredible outspokenness of some people we spoke to, and many of these people apparently went into jail and came out of it fairly frequently because of what they said. I don’t know what the permanent situation is, but when we were there, which was the first half of the year 2000, I was impressed to what extent people tried to exploit this concept of the eternal dialogue and say things that one wouldn’t have said in a socialist country at the height of the Cold War. I don’t want to underestimate the repressive forces that were around, and some of these people probably were in deep trouble, but I was generally impressed by the courage that I encountered. EB: You said that you traveled on your own to Africa, but you also traveled with other members of the Security Council. This was the first time in many years that the Security Council had actually traveled from New York to other countries. Did you find that other members of the Security Council also felt that these were eye-opening experiences to go and to speak to these leaders and other people in Africa? We had, of course, varying degrees of African experience in our mission. There were people who had never been to Africa, I believe, like I had. But others had been there several times, and so I’m sure that people had different experiences. I believe that for some it must have been eye-openers, but I was probably the one member of the mission who was most in need of this eye-opening experience. EB: Did you talk a lot with the other ambassadors during these trips about what you were seeing, what you were hearing from the leaders and from other people? Yes, we were traveling on the same plane most of the time, so we constantly had time to discuss what we had experienced, and of course we exchanged views. We did that all the time, yes. EB: Did this create different relationships between the different ambassadors that you wouldn’t have had had you been in New York the entire time? I think so, yes, definitely. In my case, I would say that was very much so with my Chinese colleague. We had endless discussions on the way we looked at Africa and what we saw, and I think that was very pleasant. We had excellent relations in New York but never had had the opportunity to talk so extensively about other countries and other systems. It was very interesting. 

The scramble to join the missions

 EB: Did this help also in work at the Security Council in your discussions with the other members back in New York? Yes, I think these missions are useful. You have to be very careful that you do not create an inner circle and say well, we were there and you were not, and we will tell you how it was. On a personal level, that might do, but it will not be acceptable for the capitals that ultimately draw up our instructions. Then it would become too important whether one is part of a mission or not. These Security Council missions have to be limited in size. There is already too much of a scramble to be on every mission. It would be a bit unfortunate if they became a sort of closed shop. EB: How many people would go on these missions? How many ambassadors? I’m not quite sure what the largest one was but I believe that we were at a certain point close to 10 members. That is a bit pointless because then if you realise that the Council consists of 15 members, you wonder whether it is still a mission of the Security Council. I believe the missions should not be much larger than 5. That was what the initial mission that was launched during the Dutch presidency of September 1999, that is the one to Jakarta and East Timor consisted of 5 people, but as you said yourself, there had not been any Security Council missions for a long time. So that was a bit of a surprise, and people were not really prepared, didn’t know how to handle that, so when we decided to launch this, send this mission to Indonesia, I simply picked 5 people, and there was not really any discussion. The decision to send the mission was taken democratically by the Council as a whole, but the selection of the 5 people was left to the president and that happened to be me, and I thought that was an excellent solution at the time. But unfortunately later, it became better prepared. People were more inclined to consult their capitals, and then it became more difficult because every capital says you must be on that mission, and we had long discussions on how to reduce. We solved it once with a – I believe that was the Security Council mission to Kinshasa was a sort of trade off with a simultaneous Security Council mission to Kosovo and then to Yugoslavia. Well, then of course you can say those delegations go on one mission do not go on the other and that solves your problem. But that is far too cumbersome to do it that way. I think the rule should really be as it was in the case of East Timor that you decide to send a mission and then ask the president to consult, of course consult, but then decide. In the case of East Timor, there were at least three ambassadors who either wanted to join or who had been instructed to try and join and whom I couldn’t accommodate because I had already picked the 5 that ultimately went. 

Permanent vs. non-permanent Security Council members

EB: Was it a problem for you on these missions that you were from a country that was a non-permanent member of the Security Council and from a relatively small country in comparison to Ambassador Holbrooke from the United States or some of the ambassadors from the other big countries? Of course, it shouldn’t be a problem. By definition, it shouldn’t be, but obviously if one is even a little bit realistic, one realises that these permanent members have a greater say, have more weight. You should actually constantly remind them of the equality, even if that is symbolic and everybody knows that the Netherlands is not equal to the United States in influence in Africa or whatever, but you have to insist on that because that is the system. That is the way the system works. They accept that you insist on that, and they do their best to behave and they do not always behave. In the case of Dick Holbrooke, I had a little incident with him – well, that’s a heavy word, it wasn’t as bad as all that – but I was a little annoyed when we arrived in Kinshasa. We all wanted to get off the plane. There was a security guard who stopped me, and he said, no, the ambassador had to get off first, and we were all ambassadors. But he meant Dick Holbrooke. And Dick Holbrooke was received by the foreign minister who asked him to come in. So later I told Dick that that was not the way it should be done, he should look around, that if he is heading a mission, he should see if the whole mission is there before he steps into a palace or whatever. I remember that Dick Holbrooke reacted in his typical slightly, irritated way, but I know him well enough to appreciate that, and he said “oh, Peter, give me a break. Next time, I’ll carry your suitcase.” The thing is he didn’t particularly carry my suitcase, but he was very careful for the rest of the trip, so no real problems. 

The role of the Security Council president

EB: You talked about the time you were serving as the president of the Security Council. You served as president twice. What type of role or what type of influence does he or she have as president? Well, I think you should distinguish between the influence that the country that the president represents has and the influence that the president himself has in procedural matters. The former is not very much greater than that of that country would normally be. It is not so that if once your country holds the presidency that your country can suddenly do things that it cannot normally do. That’s not so. People would really react negatively if you tried. But they do accept the chair’s decision in many, many procedural… I already mentioned this choice of members of a mission. They do accept I thought to a surprising degree the ultimate say of the president if difficult knots have to be cut in the procedural field. That goes very much further than it would go for a chairman of a committee or whatever in the Netherlands. EB: One of the problems on the Security Council, of course, is that you often have very opposing views. As president, what type of role do you have in trying to reach compromises? Well, you do. You talk. You talk a lot. You try and solve matters. You talk to the members. Of course, you talk to the permanent members first. That is realistic. But then again, in many controversial issues, the permanent five do not see eye to eye with each other, so if you have a case where the five permanent members have one view, you should not waste your energy, you can save your energy because that is, of course, what is going to happen, I would say. But that is so rare. There is almost always a problem somewhere within the P5, and then it is quite conceivable that a president who represents a small country and even a lot smaller than the Netherlands can play a mediating role. EB: Was it actually helpful for you to come from the Netherlands, a country which has a very, very long tradition of always trying to reach compromises? Yes, I think that generally speaking is true. On the other hand, I remember this was not the presidency of the Security Council but the chair of the CDG, that is the sort of contact group of countries on the Security Council that deal with the former Yugoslavia. We had the rotating chair, the Netherlands had the chair of that inner caucus at the time when the Kosovo NATO intervention on Kosovo came to an end. I remember the G7 had drafted an agreement, and I had to explain this in that capacity to the Chinese, and then of course I did come from a relatively harmless country if you can call it that, but at the same time it was a NATO country that that had participated in the bombing. So it isn’t always so important. In many cases you have to forget what country the president represents. It is important that there is a president, that he has clear ideas of how things should be handled procedurally and then people will accept his views. EB: When you had to reach compromises within the Security Council, how did you actually operate? What did you actually do to try to bring those compromises about? Well, what you normally do, I think, first is you try to get a clear idea of what the views are, and then it’s basically so that you try to identify things that are less than absolutely essential for one party but fairly essential or the opposite being fairly essential to the other and you try it out. You say how about if you did this and they did that. I mean, this is so basic, I can hardly explain it. You just test different options and you see soon enough whether one has promise and the other does not. EB: Did a lot of this happen during actual meetings of the Security Council or would a lot of it be behind closed doors with individual delegations? There are actually three things. There are formal meetings. They are the least important to a certain extent because they take place in the famous Council chamber, which everybody knows from television. Once something is discussed there, unfortunately it is very often already precooked and ready. Then there is the informal consultations which take place almost every day, which are taking place in a room next to that room, but no public, no other members. And then there are of course purely informal meetings of one or two or three members of the Security Council together, and they also play a role, but the consultations of the whole, as they are called, are really the backbone of the Security Council work. They are fairly formal. They should be less formal than they are, but there is a tendency on every item to have a tour de table as it is called in French – everybody takes his turn and everybody says what he has to say – and then after that, some people speak again, but it’s not a wide open debate. It should be perhaps more that, but that is where all the business takes place. And then when it goes to the Council chamber, then it is often already quite clear what everybody is going to say. I must add though that we have tried, especially under the second Dutch presidency in November 2000, we have tried to have more and more open, formal meetings immediately, where something is discussed for the first time, and I don’t know whether that will last but there was a tendency of welcoming that approach, that openness, but I could talk about that for a long time because I would warn those who feel that that is the ultimate solution, that we cannot live without the confidential consultations. EB: During these informal talks, are people very diplomatic or do people speak quite frankly about what they think and what their positions are? There are no rules. It depends very much on the personality of the people. I would say in the Security Council, when I was there, there were a few delegations who were generally…you could expect certain delegations to be fairly outspoken, but there were other delegations that were always diplomatic, and I wouldn’t like to identify those people separately except that I myself have always been inclined to be relatively direct and outspoken because as long as it doesn’t sound disrespectful, people tend to appreciate it. It is a bit of a game. I mean, you shouldn’t do it the first day, not the second day, but after a point, you adjust to each other’s styles and that is very much so, and every 1st of January, you have a new composition, and you see that the first 3 weeks of January, the meetings are fairly pointless because everybody is still beating around the bush and trying to find out how people react to each other. But after a while, you know he can take it and he cannot and you develop your style and that’s a mutual affair. 

Double standards

EB: Coming back to your trips and the trips of the Security Council made to Africa, did you find that as a result of this that the Security Council and you yourself changed in the way you dealt with the African continent? I can only speak for myself. I believe that others must have had that experience as well, but I changed in one sense that I was always very annoyed, irritated when people, African delegations especially, blamed us for having double standards. The argument was always why don’t you do anything about Africa? Why don’t you help solve the problems in Sierra Leone, in the Congo? And look at the incredible impact of your intervention in the former Yugoslavia. You did that in Bosnia. You did that in Kosovo and then later in East Timor, you immediately managed to get a multinational force in place. It was all these things are apparently possible in Europe or Asia but not in Africa. And I was always annoyed by that. And I pointed out whenever this was said that this comparison wasn’t quite fair, that the Kosovo intervention was not so simple either. It was quite gradual that the NATO forces had become so involved, and I’m still convinced that the intervention in the Kosovo drama would not have been possible if it had not been preceded by 9 years of ethnic cleansing by Milosovic, first in the Krajina and then in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. And it was a case of accumulated revulsion at what Milosovic was doing which made it possible for 19 democratically-elected parliaments to give the green light for this action. That’s to say all the NATO parliaments said OK, and that is highly unusual and very unlikely that it will happen again. It was an unusual situation. East Timor was another unusual event because it doesn’t often happen that this sort of thing happens next door to a country with a powerful army that is prepared to intervene. I’m thinking of Australia, of course. So, there were factors that made it possible that are not necessarily present elsewhere in Africa. That was my first reaction. But later in Africa, I began to see it the other way a little bit, and I am more and more convinced that there is a sort of double standard, not conscious double standard, but that we have a tendency of not being prepared to do in Africa what we are doing elsewhere. That is true. Everything I have just said about Kosovo and East Timor is still true but there is also an element, I sense it here in the political system even in my own country that Africa, well, better not touch Africa because insoluble problems, hopeless continent and all that, and I’m upset by that and I try to do something about that wherever I can, but it is not entirely without justification when the Africans talk about double standards. 

Efforts at reforming peace-keeping operations

EB: You tried to do something about it when you were the UN ambassador. You suggested that the Dutch government send a battalion down to Sierra Leone to help in the peace-keeping operation there, and politicians here were, you can say, outraged by the proposal. Yes, unfortunately, the proposal wasn’t handled so professionally because somehow it leaked, and most politicians learned about it through the press. That’s never very helpful. That shouldn’t have happened. But apart from that, there was this feeling: they did not understand in the Netherlands why on earth the Netherlands should do something in Sierra Leone. It’s far from us and all that. It’s far away. My idea at the time was that I felt that the fact that the sub-Saharan peace-keeping operations, that is to say MONUC in the Congo and UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone are entirely manned by soldiers from developing countries. I felt that that was a very unfortunate situation, not on account of military capabilities or so. I was in Sierra Leone twice, and I was deeply impressed by the Indian peacekeepers I saw at work. That was a high degree of professionalism plus the fact that these Indians are also involved in all kinds of social activities in the area where they serve as peacekeepers, and the military strength of the Indians is impressive. That is all not the point. The point is that I believe that we will never be able to develop a concept of this modern peacekeeping and when I say modern peacekeeping I mean other peacekeeping than the traditional monitoring a ceasefire after a war like we see between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but modern peacekeeping is a much more complex affair. Brahimi, the former foreign minister of Algeria, who has been asked by the Secretary General to chair a panel on the future of peacekeeping. And Brahimi develops this concept of this modern peacekeeping, which happens to be in sub-Saharan Africa, but it could be elsewhere as well. And it is what Brahimi defines as intrastate and transnational at the same time. Intrastate in the sense that it deals with one state. It is not two countries that have been at war with each other. It is very often within one state, but there are considerable cross-boundary connections and effects, which make it a very complex matter. Sierra Leone is a case in point. The demarcation line that is being guarded by UNAMSIL runs right through the country, and in practice what it does it separates the government-held territory from rebel-held territory, plus the fact that the rebel-held territory is the territory that has the diamonds. So, it’s a very unhealthy system. It is not acceptable, for us at least, it is not acceptable that the United Nations should serve as a buffer between two parties where one is the government and the other is the rebels. If they want to protect government-held territory against rebel attacks, that’s fine, but it should not be the other way around. And it is the other way around as long as you insist that peacekeeping continues to be traditional peacekeeping, that is a demarcation between two parties on the basis of total impartiality. This is what the whole problem is about in this new peacekeeping concept, and the United Nations will have to develop new ideas, which are somewhat removed from the traditional role of impartiality or neutrality that we know in traditional peacekeeping, and we will not stand a chance of developing that new system if it is still based on the formula that the West will pay but the developing countries will furnish the blood. That is not going to work. And this is why I felt it was essential that Western countries should start participating in peacekeeping in sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the way this plan was handled, I didn’t get a chance to explain this properly in The Hague and even then I don’t know if it would have worked, but still I continue to try and explain what needs to be done because I think it is only if we put an end to this segregation in the peace-keeping staffing, manning can we hope to develop a new philosophy of peace keeping. EB: Were you surprised by how fast The Hague shelved this proposal? Yes, I was surprised. I was really very unhappy about that, but it had to do with the mishandling of the proposal and whoever was responsible, I still don’t know, but there are many people who don’t want to have anything to do with any military activity in Africa. Strangely enough because of the row about this Sierra Leone proposal and the unease many people felt, because we abolished our draft some 7 years ago with the intention of having a volunteer army that could be used for peacekeeping. It is according to the white paper on defence. We should be participating in or at least be able to participate in 4 peace-keeping operations at battalion level simultaneously. We have to do something with these armed forces. And because of that, almost automatically, the plan came into being that we should be the leading force in UNMEE, that is to say the peace-keeping operation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And so we did. The battalion that I would have liked to send Sierra Leone was sent to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Of course, there’s nothing against that, and it’s fine that we do that. I’m very impressed by the marines that are doing this, but it has not given the right signal that I would have liked to give and that is to say that the Netherlands is willing to participate in the new type of peace keeping, this vague what Brahimi calls intrastate, transnational peacekeeping, and it looks as though we are saying that is not for us this new type of peacekeeping in sub-Saharan Africa. What we’d like to stick to is the classical, traditional peacekeeping of monitoring a ceasefire after a war has taken place. With regard to this shift from traditional peacekeeping, that is to say the classical form of monitoring a ceasefire to this new intrastate peacekeeping, you can say that Sierra Leone is really a test case. Sierra Leone is a country where the peacekeepers separate the government from the rebels, and on account of that it is already inconceivable that peacekeepers would have the same traditional absolutely impartial and neutral role that they used to have because as Brahimi says, it’s a UN operation so it has at least to be faithful to the charter and to the mandate of the operation, which is supposedly based on the charter. So, it cannot adopt an attitude of neutrality between government and rebels. For that reason, we have been trying to push the text, the mandate of UNAMSIL in the direction of less neutral peacekeeping role and more the assistance rendered to the government in extending state authority to the entire territory of the country. The interesting thing was that among the peacekeeping forces that we had there, the two largest contingents were Nigeria and India. And Nigeria could accept this. They understood that that was what had to happen, that somehow sooner or later, although we weren’t strong enough for it, but sooner or later, the task of UNAMSIL would have to be to re-establish government control over the country, to flush out the rebels, to put it bluntly. India was violently opposed to that. India kept saying that if you start behaving like that, if you start using peace-keeping forces like that, you destroy the whole concept of peacekeeping, and we are not going to be part of it. This went so far that after we discussed this in this summer, in August 2000, India decided to pull out, to withdraw from UNAMSIL, which was very unfortunate because we thought the Indians were in the classical form of peacekeeping, India was about the best you could have. Again, we, the Netherlands, the Dutch mission, felt that this was so unfortunate and it had to do with this idea, which is still very, very palpable in the United Nations that somehow you have Westerners, NATO officers in the Department of Peace-keeping Operations that give orders to soldiers from only developing countries who have to do the dirty job. India, of course, has never said that in so many words but we sensed that that was one element of this. We believed and I continue to believe that this problem can only be solved once you also have Western peacekeepers, NATO countries, maybe not the largest one, maybe the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, I don’t know, in these sub-Saharan peace-keeping operations. And this was what it was all about. 

EB: But isn’t it difficult to explain to national politicians and to the general public, to explain and to convince them that they may be sending some of their forces out to places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Sierra Leone, places that are extremely dangerous, and that some of these peacekeepers may be coming back in body bags. Well, it is not so sure that what we are doing in Ethiopia and Eritrea is absolutely safe. There is no risk-free peace-keeping operation. Having said that, I don’t know how unsafe UNAMSIL actually is. I can only say that as far as I know, that ever since I suggested sending a Dutch battalion to Sierra Leone, I believe that no UNAMSIL soldier has been killed. I realise that that may be due to the fact that they have not yet done what they are supposed to do, that is to say flush out the rebels. I see that. But on the other hand, no one is proposing a sort of mad operation of frontal attack on the rebels. All the texts that we have discussed in New York are about putting pressure and squeezing out the rebels. I believe that it is not as dramatic as it seems, provided you have a proper operation with enough staff and enough equipment and all that. That is of course essential. No government should propose to send people into an operation of that sort if they are not well prepared, but I do think the risk is limited, but on the other hand I also have to say that if you want to have military people for military operations, you cannot count on any operation that is absolutely risk-free. That doesn’t exist.

The spectre of Srebrenica still haunts the Dutch

EB: One of the other reasons that there was a reluctance in the Netherlands to send troops to Sierra Leone, for example, was the failure of Dutch troops who were acting under a United Nations’ flag in the former Yugoslavia to stop the massacre of thousands and thousands of men in Srebrenica. This continues to haunt the Netherlands and Dutch politicians even to this day, years later. Well, that is definitely so. Unfortunately, I mentioned this proposal that I had made to send a marine battalion to Sierra Leone. One of the comments that I made in that proposal was that once we sent troops to Sierra Leone, this would also put an end to this unfortunate Srebrenica Syndrome. Again, this is something that was not meant to be published that it was, and it made people very angry. But I still maintain that in practice that is so. We are haunted by that idea. But I would like to point out that it has nothing to do with the risk to our own forces. What happened in Srebrenica, the reason that people feel so ashamed of Srebrenica is that all these Bosnian Moslems were killed, more than 7000, and we were unable to do anything about it, but no Dutchman – well, there was an accident – but there was no loss of life, no considerable loss of life on the part of the Dutch contingent. That is not the cause of the trauma, of the syndrome. The syndrome is that we felt powerless to do something about it. So, the question I once put to a journalist who asked me about this: I said, well, That is not the cause of the trauma, of the syndrome. The syndrome is that we felt powerless to do something about it. So the question I once put to a journalist who asked me about this: I said, well, obviously what we all want to prevent is a recurrence. We want to prevent another Srebrenica, but what are we trying to prevent? Are we trying to prevent that once again 7,000 innocent civilians are being slaughtered? Or are we trying to prevent that the Netherlands is once again getting involved in that sort of thing? 

Embarrassing to represent the Netherlands at the United Nations

EB: You said in an interview that you felt at times embarrassed to be representing the Netherlands at the UN Security Council. Was it because the Netherlands refused to send troops, for example, to Sierra Leone or was it something else? I once said that, there’s no doubt about it. But it was quoted and re-quoted and quoted again. It sounded very dramatic. The context in which I said it was that I felt that it was a bit easy to decide on one peace operation after the other and then even more so being pushed by members in our own parliament to ask for a more robust mandate when you know that you are not going to send any troops yourself. I mentioned the discussions we had with the Indians. I remember the Indians saw that. They could see even the discussions in the Dutch parliament occasionally managed to attract their attention. These members of the Dutch parliament want a more robust mandate. Where are the Dutch soldiers? The Dutch soldiers are in Holland, and the Indian soldiers are there and they are supposed to be more robust. But that is basically what I meant. The discrepancy between the ease with which we discussed how these troops should behave and the absolute unwillingness to send any troops ourselves. EB: Is this hypocrisy on the part of the  Netherlands and the international community? I’m not even sure that people who ask for a more robust mandate in the Dutch parliament because they feel that it must be possible to push back these guerrillas in view of the terrible things that they do. I’m sure that they are sincere. They mean that, but I wonder if they realise to what extent of that incredible discrepancy between their insisting on a more robust mandate and their unwillingness to send troops themselves. 

Development aid is useless if we don’t stop the endless wars in the continent

EB: Is it in the interests of the international community to see these wars, these endless wars in Africa end? I definitely think so, yes. I think it’s extremely important, especially in a country like the Netherlands. We are so used to pouring – it sounds a bit disrespectful, but still in many cases that’s what it is – we’re pouring development assistance, development money into areas where the instability will destroy all the good that could come out of it. There is almost no justification of spending development assistance money on an area which is fundamentally unstable because you may be able to keep an economy going or keep people alive, but it will never develop in the way it should develop. The only viable development that I see in African countries has to come out of these African countries, and it is quite possible…I mentioned earlier that I’m convinced that the Africans are at least as intelligent as anyone else if not more so. I’m sure that the Africans would be able to develop all kinds of economic forms provided that there is security, peace and stability. I find it really unfortunate that a country like the Netherlands is so willing to be so generous in the field of development assistance and so unwilling to see how those same amounts of money could be spent on improving the stability of the region. But the problem, of course, is that once we start doing that…if you say, for example, we are going to finance – let’s not talk about Dutch troops, but money is also very important – we are going to finance a way of bringing the whole of Sierra Leone under the control of the legal government so that at least the money is not being siphoned out to Liberia or wherever and it can be spent on the development of the country. If we were able to do that, we would probably be doing a much greater favour to such a country than by spending the same amount on development assistance. EB: The other factor is, of course, if there’s instability, if there’s war in these countries in Africa, you will get more and more refugees or asylum-seekers coming to Europe, coming to the Netherlands. Well, absolutely. That is definitely true too. That is a very important factor. I don’t know to what extent the Dutch are aware of the fact that people from Sierra Leone might come to the Netherlands… 

Did you succeed in raising Africa’s profile at the UN?

EB: You said that when you were appointed ambassador to the United Nations, one of your objectives was to raise the profile of Africa. Do you think in those two years that the Netherlands and the other member countries succeeded in doing that? I think so. I don’t know to what extent we did it, but I believe that Africa has become much more important in the Security Council. What would be interesting is would be to find out to what extent the Security Council discusses African issues as opposed to others. I would imagine that that would be between 70 and 80% Africa. That would just be a personal guess. It would be easy to find out what percentage it was in 1998, for example. But Africa has, of course, been important all along. I cannot really answer your question. I think we did all we could. We found it important. But statistically, you’d have to check and ask the United Nations to check that for you. EB: Do you think that this is also partly a result of the fact the Secretary General is an African? Kofi Annan comes from Ghana. Funny enough, I never thought of that, whether that would be the cause. I frankly don’t know. The interesting thing is that many countries claim a certain role in this. We spent a whole day, I believe it was even two days on Africa in an open meeting chaired by the prime minister in September 1999. EB: Which prime minister? Prime Minister Kok EB: of the Netherlands of the Netherlands. Because this always works that prime minister level, you get also on the part of the delegations the highest participation, so there were several presidents and foreign ministers present in that meeting. That was an important meeting, I thought, even if it was only for awareness on African issues. And then the British had a special meeting under their presidency in December, and then the United States had a whole week of Africa meetings. This was when Holbrooke had finally joined the US mission and that was in January 2000. And I remember that after that, each of these three countries sort of claimed that they had put Africa on the agenda. Of course, we had, but I remember that at a certain point, the Americans claimed that they had done it, so I had to remind them that of the fact that we had had our meeting in September. It’s hard to tell to what extent that has a real effect, but it has to have some impact.

 EB: Are you saying also to some extent that the Netherlands even though it’s a fairly small country can exercise more influence than its size and its economy actually warrant? I don’t know. The size and the economy are already quite considerable by UN standards. You should never forget that the United Nations has about 190 members, and the very large majority of that is much smaller than the Netherlands. So in the United Nations, we’re not so small. But I do think that the Netherlands is a relatively important country. It is not negligible, but in the Security Council context, the 5 permanent members are way ahead of the rest. EB: Does a country’s influence also depend very much on the politicians and the diplomats who represent it? Yes, I think so. That is inevitably so. Definitely, yes. EB: Do you think that this is also partly a result of the fact the Secretary General is an African? Kofi Annan comes from Ghana? Funny enough, I never thought of that, whether that would be the cause. I frankly don’t know. The interesting thing is that many countries claim a certain role in this. We spent a whole day, I believe it was even two days on Africa in an opening meeting chaired by the prime minister in September 1999. And then…which prime minister? Prime Minister Kok of the Netherlands of the Netherlands yes. He chaired that meeting. That was… because this always works that way. Once you announce that the meeting is chaired by the highest level you can have, prime minister level, you get also on the part of the delegations the highest participation, so there were several presidents and foreign ministers present in that meeting. That was an important meeting, I thought, even if it was only for awareness on African issues. And then the British had a special meeting under their presidency in December, and then the United States had a whole week of Africa meetings under, this was when Holbrooke had finally joined the US mission and that was in January 2000. And I remember that after that, each of these three countries claimed that they had sort of put Africa on the agenda. Of course, we had, but I remember that at a certain point, the Americans claimed that they had done it, so I had to remind them that of the fact that we had had our meeting in September. It’s hard to tell to what extent that has a real effect, but it has to have some impact. Are you saying also to some extent that the Netherlands, even though it’s a fairly small country, can exercise more influence than its size and its economy actually warrant? I don’t know. The size and the economy are already quite considerable by UN standards. You should never forget that the United Nations has about 190 members and the very large majority of that is a lot smaller than the Netherlands. So, in the United Nations we are not so small. But I do think that the Netherlands is a relatively important country. It is not negligible. But in the Security Council context, five permanent members are way ahead of the rest. Does a country’s influence also depend very much on the politicians and the diplomats who represent it? Yes, I think so. That is inevitably so, definitely yes. EB: During your two years in New York, what do you think that you learned about the UN, about I don’t know. What do you think that you learned during those two years at the UN? Well, the UN is an incredibly complex organisation and there is so much going on. It’s very easy to consider a very large percentage of what’s going on there just talk, and you will come across many people who talk a lot and who are not very effective. But at the same time, because everybody is there, there are always developments that can somehow have an influence in the way the world functions. When I was there in the early 70’s, I remember we were just beginning to deal with population problems. It was still a very touchy subject. It was a…There was a lot of resistance. Talking about population problems means you’re talking about population control, and how do you control population. Well, there are certain controversial issues there. I remember at the time, it was a sort of… the UNFPA, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities as it was originally called – a rather peculiar name – now it’s just called Population Fund, but it’s still is called UNFPA. At the time was almost a clandestine organisation. We had meetings in hotel rooms. We didn’t want it to be known that we existed in the United Nations as such. The executive director, I believe was his title, was a Filipino at the time. Can you imagine? A Catholic country, that was even more clandestine. The whole operation was very, very marginal. And now it’s one of the major agencies of the United Nations.

Successes and failures

EB: What was the high point for you during those two years in New York? That’s…. I should be prepared for that question by now because I’ve had the question several times and I usually don’t know what to say exactly. EB: Should I ask you first what the low point was then? Let me think. Sorry… Well there are a few events that stand out. The reason I hesitate about the definition, the classification of high point is that I am always inclined to see the drawbacks as well. I do believe that the intervention of NATO in Yugoslavia on account of what happened in Kosovo was a high point and a low point at the same time. It was a low point in the sense that although we tried to explain that we had a legal basis for that operation, I think all politics aside and in retrospect, we have to admit that we did not have a full-fledged legal basis for that. What we said in the Security Council in March 1999 was that the resolutions that had been adopted in September and October 1998, which were of a very threatening nature vis-à-vis Belgrade and which referred very clearly to Chapter 7, and they were formulated in a sort of do-what-we-are-telling-you-or-else wording, that in combination with the non-compliance by Belgrade was virtually, was almost an adequate legal basis. The interesting thing is at that time that there was a little discussion behind the scenes between the French delegation and the Dutch delegation because we had exactly the same instructions. We said exactly the same thing, but the difference was that the French said this amounts to a legal basis and we said it almost amounts to a legal basis, and the French were furious about that because they said that is admitting that there is no legal basis. But that’s the way we felt. And I think you have to admit that there was no real specific Security Council mandate for that action. So that would be a negative point. The positive point is that it took place anyway because it is an important element in the whole concept of the humanitarian intervention. The concept is trying to give an answer to the question what if the killing doesn’t stop and the Security Council fails to act. You can say in that case, nothing happens because that’s the way the Charter is drafted, or you can say, no there are situations where the humanitarian catastrophe that needs to be prevented is such that we have to accept the possibility of intervening even without an adequate specific Security Council mandate. It’s an extremely difficult discussion and it is not easily solved. But the fact that it took place and then the Russian Federation introducing a draft resolution branding this a violation of the Charter and that draft resolution being rejected by 12 to 3 votes, all that together is, of course, constitutes a very interesting phenomenon, interesting example of how the legal situation concerning the right to intervene in a humanitarian catastrophe is evolving. Having said that, I must add that again afterwards we are less than delighted about the way things are going because we hoped… We intervened because we wanted to save the multi-ethnic society, and we only see that the Albanians who were helped by our intervention are not very much in favour of a multi-ethnic society themselves but are very much inclined to do all the ethnic cleansing that was done against them, this time do it themselves against the Serbs. So the situation is very complex but I still think it’s a highlight somehow of what took place in the past two years.

EB: Was it frustrating for you not to be able to achieve the goals that you had set for yourself? I think that everyone always sets goals or objectives for themselves and diplomacy is the art of compromise. Was that difficult on the Security Council for you? Well I don’t think I had such excessive goals. I was… I remember before we joined, I briefly spoke to the publication of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I pointed out that I was afraid that we were…might be expecting too much in the field of integrated approach. We wanted to make sure that all the elements of preventive diplomacy, active handling of conflicts and post-conflict peace-building, that that would all be better integrated due to our assistance, and I already tried to dampen those expectations a little bit because I thought that wouldn’t really be so easy. So my expectations were not so high, and I believe that… I cannot say that I was frustrated about that. If I was frustrated about anything it was about our…what we mentioned earlier, our inability to do something about peacekeeping in Africa.

EB: We began the interview by talking about Africa. Let’s go ahead and end it there. How did your trips to Africa change you? Well, I don’t know. It’s always difficult to judge the changes that take place in yourself, but I can only say that I have started to consider Africa very interesting in the sense that I don’t believe that we can afford to disregard Africa. Of course, don’t ask me whether I believe that we could before. That is not so. I cannot say that if you had asked me 2 or 3 years ago, do you think we can afford to disregard Africa, I would have obviously said no, we cannot. But I feel it much more strongly now that it is a large continent. It is an important continent. It is just south of us. I am very, very much convinced that Europe cannot flourish, cannot really survive if it is separated from that enormous continent by the very narrow Mediterranean Sea and if that continent is not helped to develop into a prosperous and active part of the world. And I believe that that is something I see very differently from I used to see it in the past.

Do you now feel passionate about Africa?

EB: Did you also develop a certain passion for Africa? Well, I’m not a very passionate person. I don’t think I’m passionate about countries very easily. I am so much inclined to see all the pros and cons of everything, and that goes especially for a country. I find it terribly difficult to be really overly excited about one country, neither my own nor any other country. I am very, very much aware of how complex a country is. And that goes of course even more so for a whole continent. But I do find Africa extremely fascinating. It’s very difficult to explain why. It may have something to do with the fact that you hear so many horror stories in Europe about what happens in Africa. I’m thinking of the AIDS epidemic. I’m thinking of all the deprivation that is quite normal in many parts of the country. I’m very shocked. I was in northern Uganda when I heard about these kidnappings of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Sometimes you think, my God, what is going on in that continent? But I can only say that once you are there, you have a feeling that what is happening is still as bad as you thought it was, but the people somehow survive and well, they survive in a remarkably resilient way, and I wonder if we could take what they take.

EB: What you always find in Africa too is you find a lot of laughter, despite all the problems. Yeah, that’s what I felt everywhere. There’s… And I’m always a bit afraid to point that out because it can give you absolutely the wrong impression. I like these people because they laugh so much even when things are terribly serious. I mean this is not what I would like to convey. I’m impressed how people somehow survive in circumstances that I don’t know we could cope with now. I add now because I lived through the worst part of the Second World War in Rotterdam, and I know that we can also take something if necessary. But right now in Africa, many people are going through conditions that we would find difficult to take and as you say, they somehow keep smiling.