Mark Rutte’s speech at the UN General Assembly

 Edition 30 October 2018, by Juan Álvarez Umbarila

Last September, the 73rd General Assembly of the United Nations took place in New York. Like last year, Prime Minister Mark Rutte served as delegate for the Netherlands. He took part in the meeting along with the other 192 member states’ delegates, and gave a speech focusing on international cooperation, sustainable development, multilateralism, and the open wounds that remain from the downing of flight MH17 in 2014.

This year’s general assembly, otherwise famous for its members laughing at Donald Trump when he said his administration had accomplished more than any other US administration, had as subject “global leaderships and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies”. The title was: “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People,” and its priority themes were gender equality, new global agreements on migration and refugees, innovative thinking about the future of work, environmental protection and plastic pollution, awareness of people with disabilities, reform of the UN system, and peace promotion. Rutte’s speech addressed peace, cooperation and environmental sustainability specifically.

He opened his intervention quoting the late secretary general Kofi Annan and praising the United Nations cooperation system: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together,” he said from the podium. The Prime Minister’s opening words emphasized hope, fighting illiteracy, poverty, inequality and climate change as sources of conflict, and the responsibility of the leaders of all members of United Nations to carry the legacy of promoting progress as the unifying theme in human history. He spoke of the Netherlands as a transnationally oriented country, indicating that article 90 of the Dutch constitution obliges its members to “promote the development of the international legal order.” The transnational outlook, he said, reflects the historic notion of the Netherlands as an outward-facing trading nation. The core of his speech was based on the idea that this transnational attitude is key to solve the challenges that the world is facing, and that multilateralism and national interests do not have to be in opposition.

Nevertheless, Rutte’s speech emphasized MH17, the flight that was downed in mysterious circumstances, leading to the deaths of 298 people, when travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014. In May 2018, investigation reports revealed that the missile that hit the plane was Russian. Although Rutte did not name Russia in the general assembly, he did say that the origin of the missile was known, and that all nations should aim for justice to be served, the full truth to be uncovered and responsibilities accepted. In May, the Netherlands had stated that it would formally declare the Russian State responsible for the disaster. The Prime Minister’s words at the general assembly confirmed this determination and called for support from all nations.

Furthermore, Rutte stated that multilateralism, the alliance of different countries working together towards common purposes, is not a perfect system. He said that indeed the global order created by the UN has not brought benefits to all nations, and that many of them are following a trend of polarization and the pursuit of self-interest, all this within an environment of “rising repression, human rights violations and shrinking freedoms worldwide”. He made a strong call to the idea that multilateralism is not optional, but in fact the only answer to the world’s problems, and that all nations should help to improve the system step by step. During his 15-minute speech, Mark Rutte’s words, as last year’s, emphasized peace and cooperation, and he maintained a discreet and sober tone. Yet he managed to argue that the UN should reduce its number of offices worldwide from 3000 to 1000 for efficiency and collaboration purposes, and emphatically added that it is completely unacceptable that sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are committed by people working for UN missions. “The UN is meant to save and improve lives; not destroy them,” he affirmed.

The Prime Minister finished with an urgent request for attention to sustainability, climate change, pollution and water usage in the context of a water global crisis: “For the Kingdom of the Netherlands, this is self-evident. Amsterdam Airport is the only airport in the world that lies below sea level. (…) So you can imagine that rising sea levels and the increase in extreme weather are of serious concern to us, as they are for the Caribbean parts of our kingdom, which are especially vulnerable during the hurricane season.”