BEIRUT: Ever since he was young, Netherlands Ambassador to Lebanon Jan Waltmans was curious about the outside world. At the age of 16, he visited Sri Lanka, and it was then that he knew he wanted to work abroad. Annahar interviewed him at the embassy for an insight on his life, his post in Lebanon, and Netherlands-Lebanese relationships.
What were the biggest cultural shocks upon moving from the Netherlands to your first post in the Middle East?
Actually, my first cultural shock was during my first post in Africa, where I served in Ghana. My wife and I enjoyed it tremendously, but we saw that the way we think and organize our lives is very different. Since I enjoyed this experience immensely, I never applied to a posting in a western country, instead, I applied to adventurous countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Zambia.
Iraq was my first post in the Middle East, and it was the time of the rise of ISIS. There were high security measures. Lebanon is relatively calm compared to Afghanistan and Iraq despite the challenges, and from a security perspective, it’s easier for me to move around in Lebanon.
I see the difference in values and tradition. In this part of the region, family members are closer to each other. It is very common to see a young adult over the age of twenty-two live with their parents, whereas in my part of the world it is quite uncommon.
Could you please tell me about the developments of Dutch-Lebanese relationship?
There’s a good relationship between the two countries and we are aiming to improve our long-term relationship. We believe if our partner country is in a hard time, we should help. For example, during the wake of the Syrian crisis, the Netherlands government provided development support to Lebanon although it’s a middle-income country. Our current government puts Lebanon as one of the top priority countries in our foreign policies.
What are the major priorities of the Netherlands embassy in Lebanon? And what has been the biggest challenge for the embassy?
The security sector is a priority. We contribute to stability through cooperation with the LAF on border management, enhancing forensic skills of the military system and demining.
Trade relationships are also crucial. We try to do whatever we can to help Lebanese and Dutch companies to meet each other and create businesses. At the beginning of October, a trade delegation from Lebanon went to the Netherlands and met many Dutch counterparts. The focus was on agriculture.
Paying attention to human rights, focusing on LGBT and women rights, is a third priority. We also have anti-torture activities to promote prosecution based on evidence and not torture.
There’s also engagement with the youth. Wherever I go I meet with students and young entrepreneurs, they can raise any issue they want and I try to address it whether on governance, employment opportunities or human rights.
Our government will spend 50-75 million Euros a year for the coming four years to support Lebanese communities that received Syrian refuges, as well as the Syrian refuges. This should go hand in hand with sound implementation of policies and real reforms. This includes programs on education, economic development and avocational training for the Lebanese and Syrians
Could you please inform us about Water diplomacy in the Netherlands and what could Lebanon learn from that?
Part of the Netherlands is lower than the sea level. Because in 1953, we had a natural disaster of flooding, our government heavily invested in protecting our shores. Farmers and municipalities developed advanced systems and the Dutch have the best experts for water management in the world.
In the past years, Dutch organizations worked with Lebanese partners to try to start cleaning up the Litany River. I believe with the right governance and priorities in place, and sufficient and transparent budget allocation, the Lebanese water problem can be solved, since Lebanon has a highly educated population.
The private sector and the public sector should cooperate. People should also learn how to recycle and not throw garbage on the streets and in nature. This also used to be in a challenge in our country. You can solve this by educating children in schools and ensuring that parents teach their children; and those who throw their garbage in the wrong places should be fined.
The Netherlands is the globe’s second exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass. How do you do it?
The Netherlands is a small country. Throughout history, we needed to learn how to use limited land. Each piece of land, as shown when you look at our country when the airplane approaches the airport, is thoroughly organized.
Famers learned to be efficient on how to use this land, which triggered innovation throughout the decades. We also have one of the best universities in the world for agriculture at Wageningen and top companies, which are combined with research and sound government policies.
The Dutch were the first in the world to legalize gay marriage, and is known to be a very liberal, progressive and peaceful country, what do you think other countries should learn from the Netherlands?
One should not impose one‘s views on other countries, but the majority of Dutch people feel that those who are not heterosexual should be respected and that the LGBTQ community should decide themselves how to live their lives.
Our government accommodates gay marriage and caters for this community by adopting legislation. What we try to promote is that other countries look at our system, and in the end, it’s up to them to see how they want to organize their societies.
I personally believe that many issues raised in societies are not initiated by the government, but by the people. After the issue is raised by people, politicians look at it and try to organize and cater for it.
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