Speech Minister Ollongren Columbia University
Speech of the Netherlands Minister of Defence for the visit to Columbia University, New York, September 25th 2023.
Today, I want to talk to you about future military operations.
The deliberate and government-sanctioned use of force.
For us, use of force is a last resort;
When other forms of conflict resolution, such as diplomacy, are at risk of
The UN-Charter is clear on the justification to use force.
Namely in the case of individual or collective self-defense or after
authorization by the Security Council;
If so necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.
Then and only then, we engage in the use of force to protect what is dear
to us and our allies.
When we look at the war in Ukraine or what is happening in the Sahel,
we see an extremely concerning phenomenon.
Innocent civilians are increasingly paying the price for the ambition of
who use violence as the primary means of conflict management,
regardless of the consequences.
For us, it is clear that those consequences do matter.
Our goals, legal basis, and values define our military mandate.
This is reflected in our training and education, our Rules of Engagement,
and our targeting instructions when applicable.
All of this constitutes our rules of warfare,
embedded in international humanitarian law and treaties.
As far as I'm concerned, that is about universal values.
About consensus and accountability.
About transparency and advancing technology.
The rules of warfare are also a subject of which the complexity
only becomes clear outside these protected walls.
In combat situations.
Especially when it comes to something as crucial as preventing civilian
Consider, for example, Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against
terrorism in Iraq and Syria.
The enemy is not always easy to identify
Civilians are used as human shields and military personnel must act on
the basis of the information that is available.
The picture is not always entirely complete, while our service members
often have to make split-second decisions.
It is our duty to accept that complexity.
As well as the reality that we cannot always prevent civilian casualties
and civilian harm.
We will never be able to reduce the risk of such harm occurring to zero.
That, too, is the reality of military deployment.
A reality that sometimes hits us like a jet of ice cold water.
Certainly in a political environment in which a great deal of attention is
paid to the subject,
And in which the idea sometimes prevails that there is such a thing as a
In this pursuit of mitigation, we must not send our military personnel on
By imposing so many rules that they can no longer do their jobs.
What we can and should do is create the right conditions.
Before, during and after missions.
That distinguishes our way of warfare from that of others.
Others who choose to target civilians and civilian objects.
Consider the injustice in Ukraine.
Putin’s forces intentionally bomb power stations and hospitals.
Apartment buildings, railway stations and schools.
Food is also being used as a weapon.
And not only in Europe.
Also in Africa, where food insecurity already affects so many people.
And where many regions are also blighted by large-scale and frequent
In the Sahel, for example, fierce fighting has been raging for years.
Waged by autocrats and terrorist groups.
And with the “help” of ruthless mercenary armies such as Wagner.
In countries such as Mali, Chad and Sudan.
Where it is always civilians who suffer the most as a result of the rising
Aggressors who operate in a manner similar to Putin can also be seen in
the Middle East.
Assad in Syria;
Or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
And the strict and harsh regime in Iran.
To them, the protection of innocent people is not on the agenda.
But what conditions do we mean that have to be met
When talking about the prevention of civilian harm?
It is in any case about clear agreements on risk mitigation.
As well as incident investigations and transparency in those
Such clarity must not only be achieved during and after missions.
Crucially, it must also be in place before we take action. And in a
Our men and women will not benefit from more rules on the ground.
A nation must stand squarely behind its military personnel when they are
I reiterate that it is not necessarily about more rules on the ground.
It is about paying particular attention to civilian harm in existing
operational planning and procedures.
For instance when sharing intelligence with allies,
And when planning the use of armed force in a targeting process.
So that a pilot, for example,
Who is flying at almost 2,000 kilometres an hour,
Makes the right choice and does not have to take emergency measures
in a split second.
In this way, we jointly explore what we can do to investigate incidents,
To make operational adjustments,
To learn lessons for the future.
And how we act towards victims and next of kin when, despite all
mitigation efforts, civilian casualties have occurred.
We owe this much as nations, but also as a coalition.
These are gains that we can make in achieving our objectives.
In the interest of the security of the troops;
In the interest of the safety of civilians;
In the interest of a successful mission.
Intelligence must therefore not only be about the adversary that one
wishes to defeat.
It must also be about the civilian that one wishes to protect.
It must be about information on school buildings, hospitals and critical
infrastructure, for example.
It is about in-depth knowledge
About the environment in which armed force is to be used;
Knowledge that is included in military planning and targeting.
I see this facet clearly reflected in the civilian harm mitigation action plan
drawn up by my American counterpart.
Because his plan underscores that, as allies, we share a great deal.
The idea, for example, that a well executed attack does not by definition
win a war.
A bad one, however, can mean losing one.
Because such an attack means losing support, both locally and at home.
Therefore, the better civilians and their environments are protected,
The greater the support base of the populace in the conflict area;
The faster reconstruction can take place;
And the more stable the end state.
In other words, preventing civilian casualties serves a strategic goal.
What I would therefore like to underline today is that the prevention of
civilian casualties is not a threat to military operations.
Rather, such efforts contribute to effective military operations.
Our military success will increasingly be determined by the extent to
which we prevent harm to civilians.
We must therefore continue to challenge and improve ourselves,
And continue to distinguish ourselves on the basis of the values that
underlie international humanitarian law.
This means that we also have a task after missions have ended.
One that includes being transparent about the armed use of force.
We must be open where we can be and closed where we have to be
to the civilians on the ground.
And the support base at home.
Also to prevent misinformation and disinformation.
All this in the knowledge that on the basis of that information, our military
personnel performed their duties in good faith.
In the Netherlands, we have therefore opted for more openness.
For example by retroactively releasing more flight information about our
contribution to the air campaign in the fight against ISIS.
We are currently the only country in the coalition to go that far.
This is how we are contributing to finding answers for the bereaved,
To more accountability,
And to a more realistic view about the complexity of military
This complexity moves with the times.
The protection of civilians is not a static commitment.
The battlefield is expanding horizontally and vertically.
Old and new adversaries are emerging.
In different ways, shapes and forms.
Conventional large scale conflicts and terrorist attacks have always been
and will continue to be realistic threats,
Even as hybrid warfare, remote warfare though the use of drones,
Cyber attacks and even the militarisation of space will forever change the
Not to mention new technologies such as AI, partially autonomous
systems and dual-use satellite systems.
Some scientists and NGOs are very concerned
that new technologies and new domains will increase the likelihood of
I understand that.
These developments require new agreements
And application within existing legal frameworks.
Particular attention must therefore be paid to preventing civilian harm in
this area as well.
Nevertheless, we must move away from the idea that new technologies
are solely a source of risks.
We must use the opportunities that advances in technology provide.
Also in terms of protecting civilians and their environments.
We have a duty to prepare for future warfare in this way.
A process that must include drawing lessons from today’s conflicts.
We owe this to civilians and to military personnel.
This also means that the future calls for deeper cooperation on the
subject of civilian harm.
My American counterpart shares that view.
I am delighted that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commissioned the
recently published “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan”,
supported by Congress, which made around 40 million dollars available
for its implementation.
The ambition expressed in the American action plan is unprecedented,
relatable and inspiring.
He and I both believe in the importance of the subject.
I would also like to underline the importance of other topics that he’s
committed to: proactively reviewing military records of LGBTQ+ veterans
who received less than honorable discharges during the Don’t Ask, Don’t
Making right, what once went very wrong.
I can only applaud that.
It is never too late to do good.
And fortunately more is actually being done, which is of course a
Returning to today’s theme, consider for example the Political
Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the
Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons
in Populated Areas,
Or EWIPA in short,
That was signed last November in Ireland.
A considerable achievement.
Or much closer by, consider the UN here in New York,
An organisation that has played a vital role in the development and
enforcement of international standards.
Dear scholars and students,
I began my narrative with rules of warfare
As enshrined in international humanitarian law and conventions.
That is the foundation.
But is by no means the end of the matter.
No one can guarantee that there will be no civilian casualties in an
What we can agree on together, however, is that we will never stop
thinking about how we can better protect civilians: very much a subject
for academic debate.
Especially since we need to keep on applying lessons learned.
With the rapid pace of today’s developments, we can say that what
happens today is next years old way.
Think of the use of AI, drones and other unmanned systems.
What can we learn from them now in order to make sure we are better
prepared for the technologies and advancements yet to come?
And what can we take from them now in order to make sure that during
future deployments, our troops and soldiers can act legitimately on the
We must always make sure that our military personnel can do their jobs
– knowing their country stands behinds them.
We need everyone in this room to make this possible.
Therefore, academics such as yourselves, must continue to critically
analyse politicians and policymakers;
Continue to study the ethical dilemmas of warfare;
Guide technological innovations into the future;
And hold accountable those who exceed all bounds.
In this way we can and must,
With the rule of law as the foundation,
Continue to work on protecting civilians in armed conflicts.
I call on you all to work towards those ends.
Let us now proceed to your questions.
Thank you very much.