The Diplomat, The Netherlands and Africa

Peter van Walsum taking a break in his garden (©

Peter van Walsum (1934-2019) is a distinguished Dutch diplomat who retired in early 2001 after a career that lasted over 35 years. His last posting was at the United Nations in New York. During those two years, Peter van Walsum represented The Netherlands as one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. It’s an honour that The Netherlands – as well all other non-permanent members – receives only once every two decades or so. The Dutch Foreign Ministry had two goals for Ambassador van Walsum: to promote a broad, integrated approach to conflict resolution and to raise the profile of Africa.

Click here for the full interview. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: May 5, 2001


You’re listening to A Good Life from Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service. I’m Ginger da Silva. Occasionally on the programme, we like to give the microphone to someone who is experience and wisdom is in some way extraordinary. Today, we have A Good Life special on the diplomat, the Netherlands and Africa. 

I am more and more convinced that there is a sort of double standard, not a 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. 

The man: Peter van Walsum, a distinguished Dutch diplomat who retired a few months ago after a career that lasted over 35 years. His last posting was at the United Nations in New York. During those two years, Peter van Walsum represented The Netherlands as one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. It’s an honour that The Netherlands – as well all other non-permanent members – receives only once every two decades or so. The Dutch Foreign Ministry had two goals for Ambassador van Walsum: to promote a broad, integrated approach to conflict resolution and to raise the profile of Africa. Now resolving conflict is understandable from a small and densely-populated country like The Netherlands, but Eric Beauchemin asked Ambassador van Walsum why try to raise the profile of Africa? 

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 you consider Africa important and that’s the first step towards an Africa policy. 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 probably 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 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. 

Arriving in Africa for the first time

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, of course, quite an unusual place. 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 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. 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. 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. But apart from that, I can say I have seen the top man in every African country. And my experience is not 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.  

Meeting “ordinary” Africans?

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 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. 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: Was it a problem for you on these missions that you were from a country which 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 almost 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, 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. 

Double standards

EB: 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. 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, that 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 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 I try to do something about that wherever I can, but it is not entirely without justification when the Africans talk about double standards.

Western nations have been reluctant to contribute to peacekeeping operations in Africa because of past failures. In 1993, for example, 18 American marines were killed in Somalia, and the following year, the United Nations failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, which left over three-quarters of a million people dead. Then in March of 2000, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, asked former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi to head a panel to come up with recommendations to avoid such fiascos in future. Five months later, Mr. Brahimi proposed that the United Nations have multinational troops at its disposal that could intervene at short notice. He also recommended that in some conflicts UN peacekeepers should abandon their cherished principle of neutrality and actively take sides. Peter van Walsum believes the war in the West African nation of Sierra Leone is a test case for this new policy. Rebels have been terrorising Sierra Leoneans for over 9 years, killing and maiming tens of thousands of people. Peter van Walsum proposed that the Netherlands send a battalion to Sierra Leone to join the troops there from developing nations who are already taking part in the UN peacekeeping operation known as UNAMSIL. His proposal caused an uproar in the Netherlands, not least of all because the press got hold of the story. The Dutch parliament quickly rejected it, but Peter van Walsum remains convinced that the proposal was a good one.  

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. This is what the whole problem is about in this new peace keeping 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: 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. 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. 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. 

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. 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 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 that 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 if you say, for example, we are going to finance – let’s not talk about Dutch troops, but money is 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. 

Raising Africa’s profile at the United Nations

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 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. 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 opening meeting chaired by the prime minister in September 1999. EB: Which prime minister? Prime Minister Kok 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. And I remember that after that, each of these three countries 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: 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 we could before. That is not so. I cannot say that if you had asked me in…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. 

Ambassador Peter van Walsum in conversation with Eric Beauchemin.  The diplomat, the Netherlands and Africa was A Good Life special produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin with technical operations by Tieneke van Altene. A Good Life will be back next week. Until then, you stay well.