Inside View with Former Permanent Representatives to the UN

The Hague Institute convened the second in its “Inside View” series, aimed at assessing the effectiveness of Dutch foreign policy. This followed an inaugural event with former Political Directors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and precedes a final event, on 11 December, with former Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

The topic of this event, befitting the day on which it was held, United Nations Day, was the engagement of The Netherlands at the UN. Speakers included four former Permanent Representatives of The Netherlands to the United Nations in New York who shared their experience on a range of topics including security, governance, development and UN reform.

Opening the session, The Hague Institute’s President, Dr. Abi Williams, remarked that The Netherlands had long been recognized as an indispensable partner to the United Nations, and a key advocate of multilateral cooperation. The Netherlands, Dr. Williams, observed, has traditionally made a particular contribution in fostering the international rule of law, a mission undergirded by the UN Charter but which is rarely invoked as often as the UN’s role in promoting peace. | Listen to the event audio

Security and Development

The first speaker, Ambassador Herman Schaper, addressed ‘The Role of the UN in a Changing World’. He argued that the UN must adapt its peacekeeping concept and transcend an outdated paradigm of a North-South hierarchy in development programming to maintain relevance. The very notion of the Global South was anachronistic, contended Schaper, given the divergences between BRICS countries and the Least Developed Countries. The consequences of such shifts in power and interests can be witnessed at key moments of multilateral decision-making, as at the Durban climate change conference. As the international community turns its attention to the post-2015 development agenda, rich and poor countries ought to ally to ensure provision of global public goods, maintained Schaper. Such an approach should take into account the role of emerging economies in the UN as well as the needs of the poorest and weakest. Without reckoning with such challenges, the world would face “messy multilateralism”, Schaper concluded.

The themes of security and development also informed the comments of Ambassador Frank Majoor, who praised the achievements of the UN, stressing that oftentimes, the flaws of multilateralism arise not because of weaknesses of the UN itself, but because of the dysfunctional interactions of Member States. While physical distances between states have shrunk, political and societal distances remain significant, Majoor observed.

Echoing Schaper’s emphasis on shifting global power, Majoor emphasized that the West would have to come to terms with a multipolar order and that developments in bodies such as the Human Rights Council, where western viewpoints do not necessarily predominate, will increasingly become the norm. In so doing, long-standing agendas such as UN Security Council reform ought to be tackled in a nuanced way.

Majoor suggested that, in the case of the UNSC, reform may be possible not through expansion, but through more limited aims such as limiting the use of the veto in cases where the Responsibility to Protect is at issue. Integrating an understanding of the importance of security into development programming could also improve the UN’s performance, indicated Majoor, though this should not come at the expense of foregoing military operations, where they are necessary, for important but subsidiary activities, such as Security Sector Reform.

Institutional Reform

Ambassador Peter Van Walsum concentrated his intervention on Security Council reform and struck a particularly cautionary note. Referring to the arguments that he had previously expounded in a noted 2005 letter to theFinancial Times , van Walsum argued against ‘early Security Council reform’, which, he asserted, would inevitably mean an expansion of permanent members, rendering wholly ineffective the operation of the Council. Van Walsum urged participants to abide by the wisdom of the Charter’s framers, keeping the Council to a workable size. The Netherlands, he suggested, should be the standard bearer of this position and avoid arguments about which states qualify for permanent membership.

The UN’s main deliberative body, the General Assembly, has failed to live up to expectations, argued Ambassador Dirk Jan van den Berg. Although, since 2004, there has been a ‘revitalization agenda’ for the GA, including improving the institutional memory in the office of the GA president, streamlining agendas and improving reporting by the Security Council to the GA, such reforms have not been enough, van den Berg remarked.

To realize its promise, the GA will have to address three issues, he posited: (1) cognition: the perception of states and UN diplomats has evolved little since the North-South divides emerged in the GA in the 1970s; this is exacerbated by the conservatism of the UN diplomatic corps, senior members of whom rely on frames of reference developed during earlier tours; (2) content: a heavy agenda dominated by repetitive issues and a lack of flexibility; (3) constitution: elements of the UN Charter which keep the GA ‘in check’, including the one-year term served by the GA President. Van den Berg’s recipe for GA reform came not so much from within the system, but lay in methods of collective decision-making outside the UN system, including Massive Online Deliberations (MOODS) as a method of debating and resolving cross-border challenges.


The Role of the Netherlands

The audience engaged the panelists in a candid discussion, with a particular focus on the effectiveness of Dutch foreign policy. The speakers debated the Netherlands’ Security Council ambitions, with some reminding participants that UNSC membership carries burdens as well as benefits, including the necessity to take a position on contentious international issues. There was, however, broader agreement that the Netherlands could play a valuable role as an elected member of the Council, and that the 10 elected members (E10) of the body often have an important role to play in deciding upon issues of international peace and security and influencing the P5. Dutch membership of the UNSC should not just be about dealing with ad hoc crises, Dirk Jan van den Berg argued, but about putting forward a broader conceptual framework about how the UNSC should operate.

There was consensus that The Netherlands is still well positioned to play a unique and valuable role within the UN system and that the reputation of a mission in New York depended on the quality of diplomatic staff, commitment to multilateralism and the network that the delegation develops. Especially given the process of EU Coordination, profile for a country like The Netherlands depends on such qualities, Herman Schaper stressed.

Further Reading

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