Early years at the UN

For my parents and my grandparents the United Nations symbolized their hope for peace in the world. I inherited their ideal and I felt privileged whenever I got a chance to contribute to its success and felt frustrated whenever we produced mainly empty words.

In 1977, not long after I started working at the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was asked to join the Netherlands delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. My task was to write reports of the meetings of our delegation and of the debates in the Plenary and the Security Council. Without any real responsibilities, I had lots of time to observe what was going on. Waiting for a cup of coffee at the UN coffee shop I noticed how Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan (who, I knew, were responsible for the murder of millions of Cambodians) took hot water and sugar (both free) without tea, so they did not have to pay for their hot drinks.

General Assembly

In 1982 I returned to the General Assembly. In the meantime I had moved to the disarmament desk and so I participated in the First Committee. This time I was not just an observer. Although I still spent most of my time writing reports and speeches (the head of our delegation in the First Committee liked to give several speeches a day), I was involved in some of the negotiations on the texts of draft resolutions. I soon discovered that this was usually little more than a parlor game. Back home, I made a list of all the recommendations that we had agreed to, but nobody was interested in any follow up. (This does not mean that these resolutions were completely useless. The numerous resolutions about nuclear weapons have probably contributed to the widespread consensus about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.)

I discovered a useful criterion for distinguishing real results from rhetoric: is anybody in the Netherlands paying attention?

When the results were purely rhetoric, there would be no impact on the Netherlands, so nobody would be interested, but if the results were concrete some would notice, because concrete UN decisions almost always have an impact on the Netherlands, either because we would have to pay for them or because we had to implement them. So I learned that complaints about what we were doing at the UN sometimes should be considered as a welcome sign of the relevance of what we were doing there.

Real work at the UN always meant negotiating at two fronts: at the international front with other countries and other international actors such as international firms and international NGO’s, and on the national front with domestic stakeholders.

Chemical weapon ban

When I got involved in the negotiations on chemical weapon ban in Geneva, I was in the lucky position of combining my job as head of the Non-Nuclear Disarmament desk in The Hague with my membership of our delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. This made it possible to participate both in the domestic discussions and in the negotiations in Geneva and to insert the conclusions of a discussion in the other forum.

The first hurdle was the reluctance of some colleagues at the ministry of Economic Affairs to introduce export controls for some special chemical compounds, so called key-precursors, that Iraq needed for the production of chemical weapons, because this might hurt Dutch economic interests.

This hurdle was overcome when it turned out that the trade in these key-precursors for peaceful purposes was small. Furthermore it became clear that most (regrettably not all) Dutch companies wanted to keep far away from the production of chemical weapons. It was not the last time I noted that private companies often have a longer-term view and a more positive attitude towards international rules and regulations than governments.

The lesson I drew was that whenever possible one should try to bypass ministries and speak directly with the companies, organizations and institutions concerned.

The next hurdle was more difficult. In order to verify that countries do not produce chemical weapons, it could be necessary to subject civil factories to intrusive on-site inspections. But how to do this without disturbing the production process and without putting commercial secrets in jeopardy?

To answer these questions, I spent half a year – together with a chemical engineer of the Prins Maurits Laboratory and an environmental inspector – to carry out a mock inspection of a large complex of chemical plants of Shell in Rotterdam. Afterwards we invited all the members of the Conference on Disarmament to The Hague and briefed them about our conclusions. Our endeavours, in particular those of Koos Ooms, Robert Milders, Arend Meerburg and Jan Hoekema, helped not only to bring about a global ban on chemical weapons but also to get the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to The Hague.

Confronted with the wider UN agenda

Banning chemical weapons was relatively easy in comparison with many other items on the agenda of the UN. I was confronted with this wider agenda when I was placed in positions that required a broader view on the UN: As Deputy-Director of the Queen‘s Cabinet I had to prepare briefings for the weekly meetings between our Queen and our Prime Minister; as representative of the European Union I had to explain the European view on a wide range of subjects at the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) Regional Forum; and as director of the Policy Planning Staff I tried to draw attention to the challenges ahead for the ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In all these jobs I was confronted with the fact that a growing number of problems on the national agenda could not be solved at the national level, but required measures at the regional or even the global level.

Clearly the UN and its specialized organizations were best placed to provide for the necessary global governance.

However, I soon found out that the Dutch government was still mainly in a state of denial. Most so-called domestic ministries, such as Education and Public Health, did their best to ignore what happened outside the country. Even our ministry of Foreign Affairs tended to consider the UN as an organization which dealt with countries with a problem, rather than as a global level of governance with a direct impact on the Netherlands.

Permanent Representative to UNESCO

I learned this the hard way when in 2007 I was posted in Paris as Permanent Representative to UNESCO. UNESCO at that time was (and probably still is) a peculiar combination of high ideals and empty words, of impressive results and of striking failures. Thanks to a number of gifted and devoted people UNESCO has a real impact in some fields, such as the protection of cultural heritage and oceanography, but in other fields its performance is far below the level one would expect from a UN organization. The decisions taken by UNESCO conferences are too often purely rhetoric. Small wonder that very few governments take them seriously, let alone implement them.

These critical words might give the impression that I do not like UNESCO, but the opposite is true. It is precisely because I admire the great achievements of the organization and because I share the ideals and ideas behind UNESCO that I am so critical about the fact that the organization currently so often pays only lip service to them.

Governments have to open their eyes to the outside world

One might ask why UNESCO is not reformed. The answer is easy: most governments only care about the protection of their (narrow) national interests and very few governments are interested in global cooperation in the fields of education and science. Most governments, including that of the Netherlands, did not even have a view on these subjects.

The positive exception is the United States that recognizes that good education for everybody in the world is in its strategic interest.

During my time at UNESCO, both US Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Education Duncan visited UNESCO. No European country followed this example.

My hope is that governments, and in particular the so-called domestic ministries, will open their eyes and recognize that the future of their countries not only depends on how they deal domestically with education, public health, environment, science, crime, etc., but at least as much on how other countries deal with these issues. If they recognize that, the importance of strengthening the UN system will be self-evident.

Barend ter Haar

Barend ter Haar

Senior Visiting Research Fellow of Clingendael Institute

Leiden University
Head of the Non-Nuclear Disarmament desk, The Hague, The Netherlands
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands, The Queen’s Office, The Netherlands, European Union Permanent Representative to UNESCO, Paris, France