Statement by Verhagen at Group of Friends meeting

of the Alliance of Civilisations

Your Excellencies, dear colleagues,

My confidence in the Alliance of Civilizations is as strong as it was when the Netherlands joined the Group of Friends. I would like to congratulate the High Representative, Mr. Jorge Sampaio, on a job well done over the past years.

And by a job well done I mean that the Alliance has managed to bring people together, governments and non-governmental organizations alike, focusing on what we share as people rather than on what divides us – aiming for a world in which we can all live together peacefully, regardless of our differences, on the basis of a number of universally shared values. The Alliance has made a good start in finding constructive answers – not by denying or disguising tensions between cultures, customs and beliefs, but by promoting good governance of cultural diversity. Promoting dialogue among communities has been an important means to this end.

Now that the current working plan has been implemented to a large extent, I can well imagine that it is tempting to venture into new areas of work. I have carefully read the first ideas expressed by Mr. Sampaio, and I would like to offer some thoughts on the direction in which he seems to be headed. Naturally, these are preliminary remarks. I greatly look forward to the more in-depth discussion we will have at the Second Annual Forum, next Spring in Istanbul.

First of all, I think that the idea of the Alliance moving into the area of “establishing conditions for sustainable peace between divided communities and societies” poses some challenges. This is a vast area – I fear that it may well go beyond what the Alliance – which has so far focused on conflict prevention rather than conflict resolution - can handle. In particular, I wonder how the Alliance’s work would relate to that of the Peace Building Commission and other organs of the UN.

Secondly, the idea of the Alliance promoting the engagement of religious leaders and becoming a connecting forum for different inter-religious initiatives is certainly interesting, but does also leave me with some questions. Mainly, I would not like to single out ‘religion’ as the one form of identity that defines who should be included at the table. After all, people cannot be categorized exclusively on the basis of their faith. People relate to each other in many different ways, and their identity is based on many different aspects: religion being one of them. The Alliance should steer clear of forcing people into boxes of singular identity: this would make our outlook on society much more restricted and it would make the world as a whole more susceptible to undesirable generalizations. Bringing religious leaders into the process of political dialogue can indeed be enriching, but this should never imply that other stakeholders are excluded from that process. We need all representatives to be equally involved.

In my view, the strength of the Alliance lies first and foremost in the continuation of its existing work. It is precisely the “counter-clash-of-civilizations” strategy the Alliance has adopted that is most valuable to me, and I would hope that this basic principle remains unchallenged in the years ahead. If we were to continuously stress our differences, and cast them in an “us versus them” mould, this would most certainly have a self-sustaining effect. We should avoid going down that road, and instead cherish the Alliance as a platform that connects rather than divides. I fully support the High Representative’s observations in that regard and would hope that we can avoid unnecessarily stressing our alleged ‘differences’ in the future as well. We need to take care in the words we use – lest they create an image of clash and conflict that is hard to correct in the public perception. This has been brought home to me in the past year in looking at Dutch society.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat that the Dutch government has full confidence in the Alliance. This is why we have decided to contribute 200,000 euro to the Alliance’s Trust Fund in the coming year. As I stated at the first Annual Forum, earlier this year in Madrid, I am particularly interested in the activities of the clearing house, which will bring a multitude of initiatives together. This should enable us all to learn from best practices and to avoid past mistakes. For example: how do we ensure that dialogue is not just pursued for its own sake, but that it is targeted and results-oriented? There may also be examples of dialogue initiatives within societies, between people that share the same cultural or religious heritage, that have led to fruitful results.

Strengthening the fabric of Dutch society is a top priority for my government and we are fully open to learning from others how this can best be done. I therefore hope that many countries will be represented at the first meeting of the network of national coordination points, a week from now in Paris. This is a great opportunity to practice what we preach, and engage in practical, hands on cooperation.

Thank you.