Speech by Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag at the opening ceremony of the 79th session of the Institut de Droit International

Your Royal Highness, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my distinct pleasure to welcome the visiting members of the Institut de Droit International to The Hague, the international capital of peace and justice. In a sense I am welcoming you back, since the Institut has opened its biennial session here in the Peace Palace before, in 1925.

The Dutch foreign minister at the time, Herman van Karnebeek, delivered the opening address. Close to a century ago he could already describe relations between the Netherlands and the Institut de Droit International as «  anciennes et étroites », and the history of the institute as «  remarquable et intéressante. » In the many years since then the Institute has continued its interesting and remarkable work in the field of international law. A field which has made great strides over the last few decades. But much work remains to be done, in view of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Which is why I am

pleased to be here at the opening of your 79th biennial session.

When the Institute last gathered in The Hague, the Peace Palace had only recently been constructed. The League of Nations was only just beginning to sketch the outlines of multilateralism, and international law itself was still a relatively new and undeveloped discipline. The threats of conflict loomed continuously on the horizon. They frequently – and roughly – interrupted the gradual expansion of international law. But rather than succumbing to these challenges, international law provided patient remedies instead. Arbitration in the face of conflict, reparations after injuries, justice in the wake of crimes.

It is a testament to the success of these patient solutions that today, both international law and this Palace which represents it, are still standing strong. Yet, there remains much to be done for the cause of justice. Numerous people around the globe are still without recourse to proper justice mechanisms, and the costs of persisting injustices are high. Current ongoing conflicts cost the world 2,000 US dollars per person each year. This is 12.5% of global GDP. These costs can be

prevented. Justice can be provided in low-income countries for only 20 dollars per person annually, and in middle- and high-income countries for 64 and 190 dollars each year, respectively. This is half the cost of providing universal primary and secondary education, and only a quarter of the cost of providing essential health services. 

Over the coming years, the Peace Palace will be thoroughly renovated. After a century in use, it needs repairs in order to meet the demands of the next century. Like the Peace Palace, international justice itself needs constant upkeep. The objective of this operations is outlined in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular SDG 16, which commits all countries to work towards more peaceful and inclusive societies, sustainable development, access to justice and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.

These are not just words. The cause of international justice needs the scaffolding that SDG 16 provides. The challenges at hand are described in the recent report ‘Justice For All’

by the Task Force on Justice, of which I am co-chair. This report details the scale of the global justice gap:

  • At least 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice.
  • 1.5 billion people have irresolvable justice issues.
  • A staggering 4.5 billion people are excluded from the opportunities the law provides: they lack the documents needed to prove who they are, or have no contract for the work they do or the home they live in.

These are worrying numbers. Without justice, without human rights, the necessary conditions for peace, stability and development cannot exist. Nor can access to healthcare, education and gender equality. In order to prevent growing instability around the globe, preventive action is needed. In order to create conditions more conducive to development and prosperity, the justice gap must be closed. In other words: many more people need greater access to justice.

This will require long-term commitment by national governments, multilateral organisations and groups concerned with international justice. That’s why the human rights approach is a central element of Dutch foreign, trade, and development policy. Human rights are a clear

embodiment of the idea of justice. One which I believe we must – and will – constantly strive for. Constructing effective partnerships is key to achieving this.

In addition to promoting human rights and access to justice, we must seek out creative and innovative solutions. Limited access to justice is a global and universal problem, but solutions can be local and diverse. Justice systems come in many different forms, and community-level justice can be as effective as nationally organised, centralised justice systems.

Justice systems around the world need to provide people with the reasonable expectation that their disputes will be settled amicably and peacefully. That their rights will be protected.

Legislative frameworks must be strengthened in order to prevent violence, and to implement laws that decrease the

likelihood of disputes. Because in justice, as in so many other areas, prevention is key.

Justice may be patient, but those in need of it can’t always afford to wait. This is why the justice gap must be closed, and must be closed fast.

In closing, let me echo the words of Van Karnebeek, speaking close to a century ago:

« permettez-moi de déposer en vos mains les vœux sincères que forme le Gouvernement Néerlandais pour le succès de votre réunion à La Haye. Vous siégez dans le Palais où s’exerce la juridiction internationale et vous êtes entourés par les sympathies du peuple néerlandais. Puisse votre session être féconde en résultats et promesses d’avenir et marquer une belle page dans les annales de l’Institut. Soyez les bienvenus ! »