This month, we have the honor of interviewing Ms. Sigrid Kaag, a top Dutch diplomat who currently serves as a United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL). Last month, the Dutch Carnegie Foundation awarded Sigrid Kaag the Carnegie Wateler Peace Prize. Before the ceremony took place, we took the opportunity to interview Ms. Kaag to discuss her work at the UN, in particular, the succesful UN-OPCW joint mission Ms. Kaag led to eliminate the chemical weapons programme in Syria. We also discussed the role of international law in her daily work at the UN. Here's what she had to say.

1. This afternoon, you’ve been awarded the Carnegie Wateler-Peace Prize. What does this prize mean to you on a personal level? 

Sigrid Kaag: I think I’m still absorbing it. But it is important to underline, that it is not just me who has been awarded Carnegie Waterler Peace Prize; I see it as a recognition of the wider team I have worked with. It is a phenomenal recognition, particularly for all those people like me, who on a daily basis are working on issues of conflict resolution and peace-building. I think the Carnegie Wateler Peace Prize is a recognition of the importance of conflict resolution, preventive diplomacy and peace-building. I’m also delighted that women in leadership roles are being recognized. Women are key and critical to peaceful societies and peacebuilding efforts. So, I’m very delighted to have been awarded this prize.

2. In what way does international law play a role in your work activities at the UN, particularly during your mission in Syria?

Sigrid Kaag : International law is always present, whether working for the UN or not. We are working on the realm of what we would want to change. In many conflicts, human rights law and international humanitarian law is grossly violated. We not only have to address the consequences of those violations, but we need to get back to the point where the norm of law becomes the starting point and more than anything we need to avoid a situation where the violation of international law becomes the new norm or even ‘normal’. This would be terrible and deeply sad. I believe that our work, wherever we are and whether we are humanitarian actors or peacekeepers, is not only about stopping the tremendous reversals. International law and human rights should be the minimum; it is not an exception.

3. How do you look back on your special UN-OPCW Joint Mission to eliminate the declared chemical weapons in Syria?

Sigrid Kaag: I’ve always believed that removing Syria’s declared chemical weapons program had many purposes. One obviously was to avoid the chemical weapons being used in the conflict or fall into the wrong hands. The use of chemical weapons during a conflict is a gross violation of international norms and is not acceptable in any way. We always hoped that the joint UN-OPCW mission would be an enabler towards a broader political process. At the time, this was indeed happening parallel to the UN-OPCW mission.

The fact that many people lose their lives during a conflict in an incredible senseless and blatant manner is unacceptable. In such a case, only one solution remains, which is a political process and of course to bring an end to the militarization of the conflict. Since we started the UN-OPCW mission three years ago and from the time we reached the final stages, we can clearly see that the situation in Syria has worsened even further. I believe this demonstrates that it’s vital to actively commit to conflict prevention. Also,  international norms need to be disseminated and the international community as a whole, needs to stand for international law. In order to do this, we need to provide the means which differ from the means needed during a conflict.

Sigrid Kaag II4. Diplomacy and international law are inextricably linked and conducive to achieve peaceful solutions in conflicts between states. But sometimes there are situations where one works against the other. Did you experience a moment in your career as a diplomat, that international law is perceived as restrictive?

Sigrid Kaag: No! Beyond any doubt, international law stands above everything. I think we all should pursue that. Most countries could strive for more improvement of the use of international law, with regards to women’s right and children’s rights. I do not think that international law is an obstacle for diplomacy; it is the proper compliance and adherence of international law that is lacking. And politics and international law often have a difficult coexistence. Often the UN Security Council is criticized by Group A, Group B or Group C because they think the UN should act in line with international law and then the vote in the Security Council is very different. It is not international law but conflict entanglement, which can complicate diplomacy. Parties have to make choices and those choices can be contrary to international law. These are difficult choices, and it should not be like that, but the world is not quite as simple as that. Advancing international law requires leadership.

5. Are you in your position at the UN prepared to talk to all parties?

Sigrid Kaag : The United Nations usually speaks with all parties to a conflict. Also with parties or groups that Member States often do not communicate with. To bring about change you should always ask yourself whether a given conversation serves a purpose. It is very often a choice. From the UN position we can do that. We must continue to create the space for human rights and the implementation of human rights by speaking with all relevant parties. But at the same time it is a delicate balance, for while we are open to speak with all relevant group, we may not want to give legitimacy to people or figures or groups engaged in the most serious violations of human rights. It's a fine balance. They are also political choices made and they are not only up to you as an individual, but they can be arrangements made by Member States or by the Security Council. .

6. If you would be the new Secretary-General, what would be the first issue you would want to address?

Sigrid Kaag: I do not know if there is a first issue, I think there are many issues to address. But I think the Syria crisis is one of the most burning crisis in today’s world and requires a solution urgently. Secondly, I think the growth of extreme violence, radicalization and terrorism needs more attention. This is a global issue, so not only for the UN to solve. A coherent approach must be implemented and the plans are already there.

7. Can conflict prevention be promoted through education and cultural diplomacy?

Sigrid Kaag: Conflict prevention should be promoted through a lot of different things. At the moment, as you can see in both America and Europe, we have to rebuild the political or public support for the multilateral system and international cooperation. When I was young there seemed to be consensus that the UN and international cooperation were important. Nowadays one seems to almost laugh about what we are doing, as if it is only something for the naive. I think the reason is isolationist thinking; a trend that I think is very detrimental and dangerous. Precisely because the world is so integrated, the world is a village!

8. Did you, in your career, consider one woman your role model?

Sigrid Kaag: No, not really. Some people have role models, but I can’t think of someone.




By Candice Alihusain, Nádine Youhat, Rens Steenhard and Rob Aeckerlin.

With Special Thanks to Sonja Huijgens.

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Syria Crisis: Selective Bibliography

This bibliographic survey is intended to provide information for international lawyers and law students on materials concerning the current crisis in Syria. The survey is exclusively based on materials available in the Peace Palace Library, The Hague. It includes books, articles, book-items, inaugural lectures, dissertations and reports, both in print and electronic format. Items are listed only once, under their most appropriate heading. This bibliographic survey is compiled and updated by R. Steenhard.




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