Spring session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe – Malaga (Spain) – 13 to 14 March 2008
Malaga, 13 March 2008
Speech by Wim Deetman, Chair of the Committee “City Diplomacy” of UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments), former Mayor of The Hague, Netherlands
Mr. Van Veldhuizen,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I consider it a great honour to speak to you today during the spring session of the Congress. First of all I would like to thank Mr Micallef for inviting me to be a guest speaker at this meeting, and Mr. Van Veldhuizen for bringing the subject of City Diplomacy on the Congress agenda.
I will not speak to you in my role as Mayor of The Hague. The Dutch government asked me to take up the position of State Councillor, that I am fulfilling since 1 January of this year. The Council of State advises the Dutch government and parliament on legislation and governance and is the country’s highest administrative court. My successor in The Hague, Mr. Jozias van Aartsen, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands, will enter office at the end of this month. Until then, I remain Chair of the UCLG Committee on City Diplomacy. It is in that position that I would like to address you in this meeting.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Why are local governments involved in international affairs?
The involvement of local governments in addressing issues of world order is increasing, we can’t ignore it. Environmental problems caused by human action don’t respect national, nor municipal borders. The challenge to beat poverty must be looked at and taken from the local level. Human security is seen from an international perspective, but has to be dealt with on the ground.
Interstate and internal conflicts all over the world are felt mostly in the streets of our cities. This is why I believe that local governments should be involved in issues that effect human dignity and safety. Looking at the ‘whole of government approach’, local governments are, also when it comes to violent conflicts, important actors. And when national governments and the international community come to peace agreements, but don’t consider the local level in the implementation, this may lead to failure of the intentions of the parties involved.
Conflicts occur all over this world, also in Europe. Peace is the objective of cooperation of the members of the Council of Europe. The European Charter of Local Self-Government provides the local authorities in the member states the right to be involved in international cooperation. This is a great asset to our European local authorities, but is not at all undiscussed by member states of the Council of Europe, let alone outside.
I believe that local governments do not only have a right to work across borders, but even a responsibility to act, when the internal order of a city and the safety of the people is threatened by global conflicts. Mayors and vice-mayors can facilitate dialogue between citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, being natives or newcomers. The discussion in the Netherlands at this very moment with regard to the anti-Islam film by one of our members of Parliament illustrate this. We can see that local governments act in close cooperation with the national authorities in order to avoid escalation between different groups in local communities. Ignoring the problems that come with this debate is for local governments simply not an option.
I am happy to see that the Congress is putting so much attention to City Diplomacy. I congratulate Mr. Van Veldhuizen on his excellent report. I fully under scribe his conclusions, most of which I have often defended in earlier speeches. Allow me to emphasise two of his conclusions that are of particular importance to my opinion:
The efforts of local governments never stand alone, but are always complementary to those of other actors, to begin with our own national governments.
It is imperative for representatives of local governments that interfere in a conflict area, to have a good knowledge of that area and of all the stakeholders they deal with. The ‘do no harm principle’ must always be taken into account.
This brings me to the second point of my speech. As I have often stressed, I believe that City Diplomacy should work with the concept of multi-level governance so that together, each tier of government acts in accordance with its own responsibility and expertise. This means, in fact, that local governments should work together with their national governments to complement their agenda on peace building.
Besides, local governments must be modest in what they can achieve. They can never reach the kind of agreements that their central governments and international bodies (like the UN) can do: local governments can never provide national wide solutions. The objective of City Diplomacy actions is to build and achieve mutual trust and confidence at grassroots level. This means that people in the streets respect each other, even though they have different opinions; that they collaborate together, even though they have different backgrounds; that they live together and build their mutual future, even though their cultural heritage differs.
Moreover, City Diplomacy actions should be undertaken with a low profile of publicity by those mayors who have an intermediary role to fulfil. The publicity should be left to the local actors involved, and in close cooperation with each other. By doing so, you diminish the risk of a conflict of interest with national governments and international organisations. In some way, it is a matter of psychology. This is exactly what I wanted to say with the second conclusion of Mr. van Veldhuizen: the “do no harm principle” must always be respected.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Local governments can only be successful when they do what they are best at: to work directly at concrete projects and the development of concrete activities for the benefit of their citizens. When local governments take the wise decision to help local governments from abroad that face conflicts, their actions should eventually deliver concrete results for the citizens. When the citizens feel that they are listened at, and that they can live together in a harmonious society where human rights are respected, that is when local governments are successful in City Diplomacy.
It is important that City Diplomacy is conducted through official local government institutions such as the Congress, but also organisations as United Cities and Local Governments. These institutions can provide a solid basis where local governments can turn to when their democracies are challenged by violent conflicts. They can provide a platform where ‘demand and supply of City Diplomacy can be matched’, as Mr. Van Veldhuizen put it.
Furthermore, I speak from experience when I say that when local governments are working with conflicting parties, they should always remain politically neutral. Otherwise, it is impossible to get the trust of all the partners involved, which will eventually lead to failure of the efforts.
Now what can local government do?
We are aware of our intentions and our role, but how can we express our commitment?
In my opinion it is very simple. We can act in a wide variety of ways but the key issue is that the actions we take should contribute to building trust at grassroots level and should allow people to collaborate.
Our involvement may be about development or re-development in post conflict situations (for example in Lebanon), being involved in trilateral projects like the ones in the context of the Municipal Alliance for Peace, a cooperation platform between Israeli and Palestine municipalities together with other municipalities outside the region, providing expertise in the field of sound governance (as we did in the Balkans), sharing experiences about preventing or containing unrest among various population groups, and giving moral support (as we did in Colombia). We can lobby the international community with regard to specific conflict situations (as Mayors for Peace is doing).
As an annex to the City Diplomacy report of Mr. Van Veldhuizen, Mr. Klem wrote an interesting report about the role of local governments in creating sustainable peace in Eastern Croatia. He concluded that local authorities there, and to a limited extent from abroad, have contributed to the process of building positive peace after the war. I recall one particular quote by mayors in the region that came from different ethnicities and where forced to work together if they wanted to realise social cohesion in their communities. At first, they were hesitating, since the respective roles they played during the war where quite questionable. After some pressure of a Dutch municipality however, supported by a Dutch NGO, the mayors decided to work together. “They realised that they did not have to agree upon the past in order to agree about a joint future”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am glad to see that the Congress puts so much focus on the development of the concept of City Diplomacy. I thank the Congress for this important contribution. I am happy that you have just adopted the resolution on City Diplomacy and that you have decided to work in close cooperation with the other relevant international organizations to draw up a charter for City Diplomacy and to set up relevant pilot projects. I do hope that close cooperation with UCLG, and particularly the City Diplomacy Committee, will soon bear fruit.
As you may be aware, the UCLG Committee on City Diplomacy will host the first World conference on City Diplomacy in the Peace Palace in The Hague from 11 till 13 June of this year. VNG International is organising this conference, in cooperation with the City of The Hague. The conference aims to delimit what we think City Diplomacy is, but should also give concrete tools for local governments that want to be involved. Participants of the Conference are representatives of municipalities from around the world, the Secretary General of the UN, UNDP, and the Worldbank. I hope that also your Congress – so much involved in the issue of City Diplomacy – will also participate actively. Therefore it is an honour for me to invite you to come to The Hague in June!
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you will have a fruitful meeting here in this beautiful city of Malaga.