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Minister Kaag: ‘A stable world doesn’t begin at the Dutch border’

How do you maintain diplomatic relations in a world of rising tensions? This was the theme of a guest lecture by Minister Sigrid Kaag at Campus The Hague. ‘Policy proposals won’t go through if they don’t foster women’s development.’

Kaag, the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, admitted that it can be hard to stay optimistic. She was speaking to students on 4 March, at the invitation of Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Geopolitical tensions between superpowers are rising, she said, and foreign conflicts such as Syria and Yemen are being sucked into these worrying developments.

Strong man

‘But closer to home, in Europe, democracy is also under attack,’ said Kaag. ‘People want a strong man as a leader, but ignore the warnings from the past. Journalists, human rights and other fundaments of democracy are the victim. That is a dangerous and worrying development. What is more, transnational threats such as climate change and terrorism need an international solution instead of more nationalism.’

Equally worrying, said Kaag, were ‘fact-free politics.’ Anyone can come up with a sound bite that hits the headlines, but explaining complex international issues is a different matter. If we don’t watch out, this could undermine the rule of law, said Kaag. 

From Niger to the Netherlands

‘The Netherlands gives developmental aid to Niger, for instance,’ said Kaag. ‘People are quick to call this is a waste of taxpayers’ money, but you have to realise that stabilising the world begins far away, not at the Dutch border. Niger is a stable region in the Sahel, and Europe benefits from a stable Sahel.’ At present, lots of migrants are coming to Europe from that region, and the Boko Haram terror group continues to run amok there.

Then it was the turn of the students amassed on the Spanish Steps in the Wijnhaven building to bombard Kaag with questions. What did she think of the protests against the president in Algeria? What was Curaçao’s role in the political crisis in neighbouring country Venezuela? And would we become a de facto colony of China?

Women’s rights

Kaag gave detailed answers to the questions and didn’t shy away from nuance. Yes, she said, it was true that economic sanctions against Iran had more of an effect on the population than on the political elite. But at the same time, sanctions are one of the few nonviolent ways to force the government to stop producing nuclear weapons. ‘Different studies into the effect of sanctions give different answers. To put it simply: we don’t quite know.’

But on the subject of women’s rights, Kaag was clear as a bell. ‘Women make up 50% of the world’s population, and vast numbers of them are in a disadvantaged position. I’m convinced that society can only change if women are equally empowered as men. Policy proposals in my field won’t get through if they don’t contribute to women’s development. It runs through everything.’

The Minister ended with a special thanks to the many foreign students in the room: ‘Fantastic that you are studying in the Netherlands. Just remember: we’re always open for business.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Jeroen Mooijman
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Sigrid Kaag

Sigrid Kaag (1961) studied Middle Eastern Studies and International Relations in Utrecht, Cairo and Oxford. Before going into politics, she worked for UNICEF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the disarmament mission that led to the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. After Halbe Zijlstra resigned, she was made Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs. ‘She is also fluent in six languages,’ said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to his students, ‘so feel free to ask your questions in Arabic.’

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