It's such a pleasure to see so many familiar faces today. It seems like we're doing this every five years. Some of us look a bit older, of course, you don't, I do. Sometimes sadder, sometimes happier. But there's always a good reason to revisit our experience with the High Commission on National Minorities as an office.
It makes me a bit nostalgic. And you know nostalgia is a bit like wine. If you have one glass you feel better, more comfortable, and energized, but if you start drinking whole bottles you can go completely off the tracks. And one of the things we see in Europe today is that the risk of using nostalgia as the opium of the people and of instrumentalizing that in rekindling some of the ghosts of the past, is present. I want to dwell on that a bit later.
But first let me share some of the lessons I have learned personally working with the High Commissioner – I've only had the privilege of working with one High Commissioner – and how this mandate came about. It was actually Max van der Stoel's own idea. Because , in '89 - incidentally today we celebrate the end of the divide in Germany – when the wall came down and a completely new situation occurred that nobody had actually anticipated, one of the discussions that went on as the CSCE developed into different areas was "where are new conflicts going to come? How will they be generated, and what will be the cause of these conflicts?"
Max had a very strong idea that all these issues that were coming out of Europe's very long history of multi-national states that after the Second World War became national states but would still have a lot of national minorities that would then be oppressed by the new communist regimes. If you sort of take the lid off that pressure cooker there was no telling what the position of these minorities might do in terms of creating conflict. So the idea was, we need an early warning instrument. We needed what we today would call a whistle blower. Someone who would see this coming and would warn the international community to do something about it.
This was very much an idea that Max had himself. The then [Dutch] Foreign Minister, Hans van den Broek, said to Max, "so why don't we create it". And he was actually a bit shocked. He didn't even consider the possibility that he would himself become the High Commissioner, he would rather let somebody else do that. And then of course he was a bit embarrassed because he never wanted to create the impression that he came up with the idea to create a job for himself. So he was very reluctant to even accept the idea of becoming the High Commissioner and then eventually he was convinced to do that.
I think one of the things the present High Commissioner said earlier is very true. It is a very personalized office. The idea was that this person should have the standing and the knowledge to be able to warn the international community that something was potentially going to be a conflict. But what Max discovered very soon working on that is that early warning actually doesn't work. Because just blowing a whistle will just mean that people look at you for two seconds and then they'll look away. So very soon, early in his mandate, he developed the idea that rather than being the whistle blower he should actually be the fixer. But this initially was never intended in the mandate so this was, as Max would say, paths are made by walking and he was walking a new path and then he understood that that would be a better way of trying to bring problems to a solution.
Now, working with him wasn't always easy and I think that everyone who worked with him and is here today will agree with me. But it was always fascinating and it was always a huge privilege to be close to a man who understood international relations so well, whose thoughts, whose knowledge about European history was so profound, whose convictions were so deeply rooted in the personal experience he had, as an adolescent boy of sixteen with the German invasion on the 10th of May 1940. He visualised this, and the fact that you could overnight lose everything, your independence, your freedom, everything, inspired him to act.
He was a lawyer and he was a very good lawyer. So he analysed problems of the participating states in great detail. And what he would do when he travelled to those participating states with problems, he would sit down with ministers and their officials would expect him to make some general remarks, and then he would start analysing the legislation in great detail and to great surprise of this at the table. This happened once or twice and then the third time they would be prepared to do that. But that was his idea of conflict prevention: going into the nitty gritty of where the problems lie. And also uncovering intended measures to put minorities in disadvantageous positions, and then simply grinding away at that, every time going back and helping the countries to step by step come to terms with the fact that if they don't allow minorities the position that they deserve they would generate conflicts within their country, but especially also with neighbouring countries.
I tried this as someone who worked for him and I like writing and I think I'm okay at it, so I've tried to help him by writing for him, to help him with his reports. And it never worked. He had problems telling me, you know he didn’t want to look down on me, so in a kind way he said "look I'll do it myself. Thank you, very well done." And then he'd do something completely different.
You can say many things about him and his reports, but they're not exactly exciting reading while the man was full of wit and very sharp humour. But not in his reports which were incredibly dull and boring. But that was his intention. He just didn’t want to cause friction with emotion but simply to analyse very precisely and use the law as an instrument to solve problems. And I've seen his successors operate in exactly the same way with different personalities, with different approaches, but I think in essence this has stayed the same.
I don't want to dwell too long on these things because I want to talk to you also about the legacy and where we're heading. Because I'm quite worried about certain developments. I do want to say one thing to all my former colleagues in the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities: you're fighting a good fight, and for those no longer in office: you've fought a good fight. And I think it's only just that we would also refer to the foundation on inter-ethnic relations that supported the work as it existed.
I find it is my duty to today mention one name, of a friend who sadly died when working for the United Nations in Haiti in 2010, who's called Wilczek Guillaume Siemienski, who was a Canadian of Polish origin. His family fled Poland when it came under Communist occupation. He grew up in Canada and then of course after '89 went back to his home country. Max liked him, but he was a bit too loud for Max - Max didn't really like loud persons - but he was the life of the office. You could hear him laugh from the bottom of the office right up to the attic where some of us were working.
On this occasion I wanted to mention him. Maka, his wife, and his sons live in Warsaw now. Maka is part of this incredible organisation Konstitucija that tries to safeguard the Polish constitution. She's in the streets a lot these days. And you know I just wanted to mention Guillaume here today for all those people who remember him, as I do, as a great friend and a great humanitarian.
Now if you would allow me to turn to some of my thoughts about our future I would like to share with you. When we worked after 1989, I worked in the office between '95 and '98 when I was first elected to the Dutch Parliament; the idea was that we had a lot of trouble. The transformation of Europe was going to be extremely painful, but there was no longer an ideological confrontation. There were confrontations between national interests, but by and large, the idea of Europeanising the whole continent on the basis of the principles that had started with the Council of Europe and were also the basis of the European Union, by and large that was the direction we thought this would take. I myself was a bit less optimistic, having served in Moscow for three years. I saw developments taking a different turn in that country and that got me quite worried already in those years. But there was not really an ideological confrontation.
And sadly, today the ideological confrontation is back. And it's no longer tied to geography, it is part of every society I know, and not just in Europe but also in the United States, and not just in the Western world. but also in other places like India and Asia. You see it happen in Africa in different forms. And I would define this ideological confrontation between those who believe that, to put it very bluntly, the fears people have and the anxieties people have because of the world changes so fast, are a good opportunity to chain them to them. And then use that chaining them to those fears as an instrument to try and promote your political position in opposition to a wide spectrum of political views that say "we see the causes of these fears, we understand the world is changing rapidly and we're trying to look for answers to that".
And this ideological confrontation is already and is going to be increasingly in my view the challenge of this generation. How are we going to overcome this ideological confrontation, how can we convince people who are worried, sometimes afraid, that cultivating that fear is not going to bring any solutions and that solutions are not in isolation?
And why is this important, in my view, for the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities? Because those who advocate chaining people to their fears often use nationalism as an instrument. And nationalism has many different aspects, but the core aspect in my view, of radical nationalism is that it needs enemies. That's what I would say is the fundamental difference between patriots and nationalists. Patriots are proud of their country and want to share this pride with others and are curious of others, they think their country is best but they also want to learn from other countries. Nationalists hate other countries, they need to do that, and they need to cultivate fear that other countries are a threat and that therefore you need to defend your national identity. And nationalism will look for enemies, whether that enemy is at the other side of the border or whether the enemy is within.
And what's the first enemy you can identify? People who are different. And I want to say this with all the force I have in me today, because the coming night we will be thinking about the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht in Germany. And this is for me the ultimate symbol that if you just put enough effort into it, as Hitler and Goebbels did, in a couple of years' time, even in a sophisticated society, you can manipulate people's anxieties and fear and instrumentalize it to such a degree that you can dehumanise part of your population, especially if you can say that they are different. This is what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1938.
And after the Kristallnacht that is when the Nazi's took really all the tools to exclude the Jews from German society. The Kristallnacht was proof to them that the society was ready to accept the "final solution" as they called it. And it will always be a fascination to me of how you can manipulate a society in a relatively short period of time to have this fundamental rejection of the humanity of somebody else. Because that is what it is, the denial of humanity.
And if you then look back at the Nurnberg trials and people were asked "why did you do this?" the reaction always was "because this was the only way I could save my nation." And I would insist on this, because Europe is nothing but a collection of minorities. If you look at Europe from a wider perspective, even the biggest population in Europe is in Europe a minority. The Germans are a minority. And so, if you are a nationalist and you want to create this feeling of being the majority that dictates, you need to carve up Europe because that is the only way to get it done. And you need to create these images of that.
If you look at the broader perspective of the challenges the world is throwing at us, especially us the Europeans. If you think that we now have, for the first time in living memory an American president who truly believes that it is in the interest of the United States to have a weak and divided Europe. If you see that, in that sense, he joins the ideas of the Russian President because they think they can negotiate the best deal for themselves with individual Member States rather than when they have to face the European Union as a whole. If that is the situation we face today, if some reduce the relationship between countries to purely transactional relationships, if you take away the value element of it – you know we as Europeans sometimes underestimate how in the rest of the world we are still admired for the values our societies have and cherish – and if we ourselves reduce our relationship with others to a transactional relationship, we delete the values from it and why would they be interested in us, we are only seven percent of the world's population, if it's not on the basis of the way we want to structure our society and the freedoms people have in this society?
So in this context, reformulating or reinterpreting, you don't even need to do it explicitly, the mandate of the High Commissioner to also look into the potential of generating conflicts on the basis of this new political, ideological confrontation, I believe, is extremely important.
And I also believe, looking at our society – and I hesitate to use an expression that was coined by Richard Nixon but I'll do it anyway – there is a huge silent majority in European societies who doesn’t want confrontation with other people, who doesn't believe in nationalism as an instrument, who doesn’t believe its neighbour is its enemy. But these people are very silent and sometimes even intimidated by the rhetoric of those who do want to instrumentalize this. And I think it is our civic duty, our civic duty to not just to teach history about what can happen if things go wrong, but to use that history to help younger generations understand what they can do to prevent this from happening again.
In my experience, working as a diplomat and as a politician, I remember very well when I was a student in 1985, studying in France, we had a conference on the Future of Europe and a French colonel [inaudible] said, "we're going to have a huge problem because Germany is going to be re-unified and that will be a neutral country and then our security will be at risks." And the Germans stood up, as one woman, one man, and they said: "stop this science fiction. Germany is never going to be reunified." Four years later it happened. Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall, it wasn't predicted, reunification wasn't predicted. Nobody had counted on reunification leading to Germany being part of NATO and the European Union and not to a neutral Germany.
I had the same experience working in Moscow when there was the coup-d'état in August 1991. After that I went around in the Soviet Union to all the regions and republics and I came back and wrote a report saying "the risk of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is real." I was called in by my Ambassador who said "yeah, you're quite a smart boy, and I like that, but are you crazy? You can't write this, and by the way this is not going to happen." And I said "well this is my honest assessment." And he said "look, it's not going to happen because it's not in their interest, and by the way it's not in our interest either." Now the second argument I already immediately thought: there are not that many people in Moscow who care about what our interests are. But the idea that international developments are always a result of a clean analysis of your interests and how you act upon them is simply not something I have learned during my experience.
The other thing I want to leave you with: the same people who will tell you on Monday that something is unthinkable, and then it happens on Tuesday, they will tell you on Wednesday "of course, it was inevitable." Never assume anything in international politics. Never assume things are unbreakable. Never assume the EU is unbreakable, because frankly it is not. Never assume that the ghosts of the past can't come back. They can. Because we all have our inner demons. We all have dark angels that can be awoken under the right conditions. In the misery of the 1930s economic crisis, in the humiliation the Germans suffered in an armistice that was very unjust to them exactly 100 years ago.
Conflict prevention is about seeing this and trying to find answers. It will always be an ungrateful business. Because a conflict prevented is a conflict that never occurred. And in the world, on the basis of our heritage, we welcome people who first are murderous dictators and then convert to being peaceful doves. We hail them. But people who work quietly every day to prevent conflict, well it didn't happen so perhaps it would never have happened. And that is the lack of gratitude, High Commissioner, you will always face, but this should not discourage you and your office to continue your very important work.
Thank you very much.