Human Rights, Peace and Security: the need for increased international cooperation

Speech by Minister Verhagen: What role can the Netherlands and Japan play?

Thank you, Ambassador Ogoura,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you this afternoon, at Tokyo’s distinguished Aoyama Gakuin University. President Ito, thank you so much for your kind opening remarks and your hospitality. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here today. I would also like to thank the Vice President of the University, Professor Tsuchiyama for enabling today’s programme.

The Netherlands and Japan share a long history. This year, we celebrate 150 years of diplomatic relations [as you just mentioned, President Ito]. And next year, we will commemorate another great milestone: four hundred years ago, the great leader Ieyasu Tokugawa granted an exclusive trade permit to my countrymen. For well over two centuries, the Dutch conducted business in Japan on the island of Deshima, while the Japanese studied Dutch expertise in water management, navigation and medicine. Both our peoples benefited greatly from this early instance of globalisation!

But that was a different age. In former times the envoys of the Dutch East India Company would travel to Edo Castle, to pay their respects. The town of Edo is now a vibrant city of over eight million: Tokyo. This is my first visit to Japan’s capital, and it is hard not to be impressed by its dynamism. This city is full of energy and drive. Very much like Japan itself. Today, the Netherlands is one of the top three destinations of Japanese foreign investment. Scores of Dutch people drive a Japanese car, or use a Japanese camera for their holiday snaps. Dutch companies are also penetrating the Japanese market. What was true four hundred years ago still holds true today: we both benefit from global trade and investment. The Netherlands is always looking for ways to further improve its economic relationship with Japan.

The face of globalisation has changed dramatically in the last few decades. The speed, the scale and the inevitability of the process are unprecedented. Never before has commerce been so intensive in practice and global in scope. Never before have so many people and so much money crisscrossed the world with such speed or in such volume. And never before has it been so easy to move production to places with cheaper labour. This entire process has been helped along by the radical transformation of communication technology – the IT revolution.

Globalisation has brought about an unparalleled increase in material prosperity. In 50 years, per capita income in Western Europe and North America has risen fourfold. As a trading nation the Netherlands has profited disproportionately from this growth. In Japan, the increase in per capita income since the 1950s has been even more sensational. Japan’s example is now being followed by the rest of Asia, where per capita income is growing at more than five per cent a year. At that pace it will double every 14 years. Japan has long been the world’s second largest economy. Others are now catching up. China has the biggest growth figures, followed at some distance by India. This means that the material well-being of over two billion people has improved in leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, thanks in no small part to globalisation.

But globalisation also has its downsides. Our economies are so interdependent that when something goes wrong in one place, the repercussions can be felt around the world. We received a painful reminder of this when the financial bubble burst in the United States. What started out as a local crisis, born of ill-advised mortgage practices, soon took on global dimensions and brought interbank lending to a near standstill. Government interventions that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago proved necessary to restore confidence and financial stability. And we still have a long way to go before the global economy is back to normal. Japan cleaned up its banking system in the 1990s, and so far its financial system has not suffered disproportionately from recent shocks. But the effects of the global crisis are noticeable in the real economy of this great trading nation as well.

That is unavoidable, because in this day and age, no country is an island. We stand to gain from globalisation, but we also stand to lose: global challenges – such as the financial crisis, climate change or modern terrorism – cut across borders and cannot be solved in isolation. These global problems require a coordinated, international response.

The need for such an international response may be greater than ever before. But the chance of seeing such a concerted effort in the near future is, frankly, less promising. The international system has lost its appeal in many countries, because it is perceived as insufficiently representative. New economic powers are demanding a greater role on the global stage. That is inevitable, and entirely understandable. These countries must be accommodated. The requirement that the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF still have to be an American and a European, respectively, is an untenable one, because it excludes the 3.5 billion representatives of the world’s fastest growing economies from those positions.

I congratulate Japan on its recent election to the Security Council. The Netherlands strongly supported Japan’s candidacy. Both our countries advocate a prompt start to negotiations to make the Security Council more representative of today’s geopolitical reality, without compromising its effectiveness. Global affairs are not the exclusive domain of any one country in this day and age: we depend on each other to solve problems, and we must therefore all have a stake in the system that governs us. I fully agree with Senior Fellow Hitoshi Tanaka of the Japan Centre for International Exchange, who recently wrote that ‘the global order must be reshaped to incorporate and constructively engage a host of rising powers’.1

This is a challenge we cannot shy away from. It is in our interest that the multilateral system function effectively. The United Nations system and the Bretton Woods institutions are based on legal principles that apply to all people and all nations. They are designed to impose order and to prevent or resolve conflict. It is to our advantage that all actors, especially the leading players, commit themselves to that system and its rules. A world where everyone acts like a responsible stakeholder and works within international frameworks will be a better place for all. Accordingly, Dutch foreign policy aims to bind as many countries as possible to the international structure. And I know the same holds true for Japan. The Netherlands and Japan both focus on using the international framework to influence the actions of other countries. It is a strategy of co-option, of effecting change through cooperation.

How successful that strategy will be, however, depends on the willingness of others to conform to a rule-based system. I must say I’m not always optimistic about our chance of success. Again, I agree with Professor Tanaka, when he says that emerging powers ‘have more or less embraced the Western economic system’, but that ‘there is no guarantee that they will fully adopt Western norms of behaviour in the international community’.2

Actually, I would even go so far as to say that there is a growing moral deficit in the world. I do not use such language idly. These days, we hear more and more about shortages: energy shortages, food shortage, water shortages and a credit crunch. Well, there’s also scarcity on the moral front. The legitimacy of universal values, like justice, equality, solidarity, humanity and liberty, has been called into question by many countries. Some governments apparently do not agree that human rights apply to everyone, at all times and in all places, even though all 192 members of the United Nations have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is an increasingly large – and increasingly vocal – countermovement that maintains that human rights are a Western invention. The influential Singaporean opinion-former Kishore Mahbubani has dismissed the emphasis on human rights as ‘ideological triumphalism’.3 I couldn’t disagree more: there is nothing triumphalist about promoting human rights worldwide. It is nothing less than a moral obligation to people whose governments prevent them from living their lives in dignity. You rarely see those people slapping away a helping hand from the West. It is their leaders who condemn ‘meddling’ in their countries’ internal affairs.

To me, human rights are an essential part of foreign policy. Mahbubani says we need to move on from a discussion of values to a discussion of interests, as if these things were mutually exclusive. As I see it, values and interests go hand in hand! We need to stand up for the cornerstones of our political system: freedom, democracy and human rights. If we fail to do so, both our values and our interests will be at stake.

Now more than ever, we need to forge strong alliances with countries that share our values. With geopolitical relationships in the world in flux, it is important to strengthen our ties with like-minded parties and work together to achieve shared goals. For the Netherlands, a strong European Union is key: our most effective way to exert influence in the world is through Europe. That is a simple reality. Europe’s relationship with the United States is equally important, as much as Japan’s relationship with the US is for Japan. Although we are clearly seeing shifts in global power, I do not believe for one minute that the United States’ role in this world is coming to an end, as some commentators seem to think – or wish. We still need American leadership to resolve the world’s most burning issues, such as responding to climate change and preserving peace and stability in many parts of the world. There is no question in my mind that the world is better off with the US at the helm than with no leader at all.4 That’s why the transatlantic relationship remains a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy.

However, the Netherlands and the EU should look beyond our traditional alliances. We need to strengthen the team, so to speak. Japan stands out as a strong and reliable partner. Japan is a stable, advanced democracy that embraces human rights as universal values. Japan respects the rules of the multilateral system and asks the same respect of others. The Netherlands and Japan may come from different parts of the world, but there are many similarities in our approach to global affairs. I see great merit in intensifying our partnership, and with that goal in mind I have travelled to Japan to convey that same message to the Japanese government. In today’s world, it is good to know who our friends are. I would like to further invest in our friendship.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Being a committed member of the international community also implies assuming certain responsibilities. We cannot look to others to solve the world’s crises while we ourselves lend only moral support. It is clear that the international community needs many hands to successfully complete the difficult missions it has taken on, for example in Afghanistan. We need to be ready to rise to the occasion, and not pass the buck when our turn comes up. I am aware of the demands this world places on us. And in that respect, I have recently called for increased investments in our defence capacity, at both national and European level. The soft power the EU has wielded in the past has been an extremely useful instrument, and there is no doubt that we will continue to invest in civilian interventions, the judicial sector and the rule of law in post-conflict countries. But we also need to be ready to bring hard power to the table, as the Netherlands is doing in Afghanistan, where we have a battle group stationed in Uruzgan, one of the most restive provinces.

Every nation needs to consider how it can best contribute. It seems self-evident to me that the greater the role a country wishes to play, the greater the responsibility it must to be willing to shoulder. Ambition should be matched by action. Japan is definitely heeding that call. For example, Japan is an important and generous donor in Afghanistan. Japan now funds 17% of the United Nations’ budget for peacekeeping operations. Japan also contributes to peace and stability in the world by posting field officers from its International Cooperation Agency to post-conflict areas. And despite legal and political constraints governing the overseas deployment of Self-Defence Forces (SDF), Japan has participated in UN peacekeeping operations since the adoption of UN PKO legislation in 1992. Most recently, two SDF officers were dispatched to the UN mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Japan has also contributed to international peace operations outside the framework of the UN: in Iraq, where Japanese and Dutch soldiers worked side by side in a successful operation, and in the refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean.

These are positive developments. Yet I would greatly welcome continuing the excellent partnership between Japan and the Netherlands in future international peace missions and I hope to discuss possibilities in this respect this evening with my colleague Minister Nakasone. Our joint effort in Iraq was a good example of an integrated approach that embraced defence, development and diplomacy. I would be happy to work together again on that same basis. It seems to me that such cooperation would be fully in line with Japan’s growing desire to play a part in promoting international peace and security, in line with its economic standing in the world and its membership of the Security Council.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There is one final point I would like to make. You may wonder why it is so important that the international community, the Netherlands and Japan included, engage in international missions to safeguard human rights, peace and security in the world. Many in the Netherlands are sceptical of sending our military to Afghanistan, a country that feels remote and far removed from most people’s daily concerns. But this is a mistake: it concerns us very deeply. The Dutch government made the decision to send troops to Afghanistan for several reasons. Of course, we want to come to the aid of the Afghan people, who have lived in a climate of oppression and poverty for far too long. We want to prevent the Taliban from taking over again, which would have horrendous effects on the human rights situation, especially for women and girls. And we want to be a reliable partner in NATO. But aside from all these things, there is another reason why we operate in Afghanistan, and it is a very important one. If we were to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for international terrorists, as it was in the past, we would be undermining our security interests. We could easily fall victim to terrorism ourselves. By contributing troops to ISAF, we are serving our own security interests.

One of the young scholars at Aoyama University, Dr Chiyuki Aoi, has understood this very well. She made the valuable point that ‘stability has become a matter of vital international interest’. I agree with Dr Aoi. She is right in pointing out that ‘the international community has a common interest in keeping internal situations within certain boundaries so that political, social, economic and environmental instabilities do not affect contiguous regions and beyond’. And that ‘stability…serves as a basis of physical defence of the international community, particularly given the possibility that terrorism and other non-traditional threats may be generated by internal instabilities’.5 That is precisely the point: in today’s globalised world, far off threats no longer exist.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This brings me back where I started: a coordinated, international response is what is needed to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Whether it’s global warming, modern terrorism or financial instability: we have to work together to turn the tide. The Netherlands and Japan should both pick up their share of the tab, as longstanding friends and partners, in our common interest, and for the common good.

Thank you very much.

1: Hitoshi Tanaka, ‘The Crisis of Global Governance and the Rise of East Asia’ in East Asia Insights 3 (September 2008).
2: Tanaka, 2008.
3: Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, New York, 2008.
4: Tanaka, 2008.
5: Chiyuki Aoi, ‘Peace Support Operations: Contemporary Challenges and the Role of Japan’, RIPS Policy Perspectives 3 (March 2007).