Sri Lanka, Netherlands share a vision for the future: Dutch envoy

Wednesday, 27 April 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Dutch Ambassador Tanja Gonggrijp - Pix by Ruwan Walpola



As Sri Lanka and the Kingdom of the Netherlands celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations this week, Dutch Ambassador Tanja Gonggrijp, spoke to the Daily FT on the historic relationship between the two countries which has evolved into one of mutual respect and cooperation. She also said the Netherlands, together with the European Union, is closely following the societal responses to the current economic and political situation in Sri Lanka and urged all parties to support fundamental rights, like the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, and to refrain from resorting to violence.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

  • Sri Lanka and Netherlands celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations
  • Ambassador Tanja Gonggrijp says important to remember dark side of the Dutch colonisation of SL, when relations were one-sided and unfair
  • Both countries committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals
  • Dutch infrastructure projects in SL such as development of hospitals, bridges and water supply system have strong focus on sustainability
  • Aims to support SL to reintroduce cycling as an important mode of transport and bring cycling into city life
  • Says human rights need to get continuous priority, also or – even – especially in challenging times like these
  • Urges SL to join hands with growing global community to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine violating international law

By Chandani Kirinde

Q: Sri Lanka and the Netherlands are celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations this year. What is your assessment of the present status of relations?

A: Yes, we are organising different events for our various audiences this year to mark this milestone in our relations. This week is extra special as 27 April is the birthday of our King Willem-Alexander, so we also mark his birthday as the Dutch national day. Our present relations have been shaped by the past. Sri Lanka-Netherlands relations date back to the 17th century. We are part of each other’s history and this brought about many collaborations we should celebrate. However, we should also remember the dark side of the Dutch colonisation of Sri Lanka, when relations were one-sided and unfair.

As sovereign nations, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka started formal diplomatic ties in 1952. Since then, the Dutch relations with Sri Lanka became more mutually beneficial and have deepened in many areas: in shared cultural heritage, in educational and consular cooperation and of course in the area of trade, especially in the agricultural sector. We have recently concluded a series of sustainable trade webinars to mark the 70th anniversary. The webinars are now available on our Facebook page.

Today Sri Lanka and the Netherlands also share a vision for the future; we have both committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and we aim to achieve them through our bilateral relations as well. We share challenges like climate change, clean energy and gender equality. These challenges are like puzzles which require understanding and then working together to be solved sustainably, with all actors in our societies: government agencies, businesses, knowledge institutions and civil society organisations – this year and beyond!

Q: What are the main areas of cooperation between the two countries?

A: The Netherlands strives to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth at home and abroad. Worldwide, we aim to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through partnerships; this is the entry point for our international collaborations and preferred way of working. Our current portfolio of collaboration with Sri Lanka covers many SDGs through our work in especially the horticulture, dairy, poultry and apparel sectors, and also the cultural and infrastructure projects.

We support sustainable business development locally and provide business support to Dutch companies interested in investing in Sri Lanka in a way that will support a shift to an ever-more circular and sustainable economy. We strongly believe that, because Sri Lanka is strategically located and has a comparative advantage already being a sustainability frontrunner in several areas, it can become the preferred sustainable choice in the region. We want to support that move – in line with the SDGs.

We also support the capacity building of local civil society organisations. The Dutch approach is to work with all stakeholders, to address the vital issues through consensus building and to support through providing expertise. We aim to put the pieces of the puzzle together sustainably and find ways to overcome the challenges in front of us in a future-proof way. And we continue to provide consular support to Sri Lankans who want to travel to the Netherlands and to Dutch tourists in Sri Lanka; consular support is also a key task of the Embassy.

Q: The Netherlands has supported sustainable development projects in Sri Lanka. Can you tell me about the main projects underway here?

A: The Netherlands being the second largest exporter of agricultural products globally, is keen on both sharing knowledge and expertise and learning from others. The agricultural policy of the Dutch government is to ensure food security while managing resources sustainably. In line with this policy, the Embassy has been actively positioning Dutch knowledge and technology in the field of dairy, horticulture, poultry and forestry in Sri Lanka to further develop these sectors sustainably. We have organised many activities from knowledge sharing to trade facilitation in collaboration with the agricultural sectors in both countries.

Dutch technology and technical know-how have supported the Sri Lankan agricultural sector for many years already to handle challenges, like the need for higher productivity and water use efficiency, in an increasingly climate-resilient and circular way. As the Netherlands plays a prominent role in the global agricultural supply chains, Sri Lanka will benefit from keeping and increasing partnerships with Dutch companies and knowledge institutions.

Our infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, the development of hospitals, bridges and water supply systems, also have a strong focus on sustainability, both with regard to the end use and the way the infrastructure is built. Indeed, Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) is an area the Embassy is increasingly focussing on. The Dutch government wants to ensure that Dutch companies engage in responsible business practices abroad. RBC means they should take account of human rights, working conditions and the environment in their entire value chain.

We receive many questions from Dutch companies: how to do this in Sri Lanka? And we also get questions from Sri Lankan companies that want to export to the Netherlands: how to live up to all the sustainability standards and prepare for the mandatory RBC requirements that are currently being developed in the European Union and the Netherlands? We are now developing information tools for Sri Lankan and Dutch entrepreneurs that will be finished and launched soon.

Q: There have been a lot of activities in the field of archaeology/cultural affairs. What are the new projects that are on the cards?

A: Sri Lanka is one of the priority countries for the Netherlands when it comes to cultural collaboration. We have had a great degree of cooperation in the cultural sector with exchange programs and renovations of archaeological sites to preserve the shared cultural heritage for many decades. I recently travelled to the North and East to open exhibitions in Jaffna and Trincomalee on Dutch forts in Sri Lanka. The exhibition will also feature in other fort cities in Sri Lanka. And this year we have started a project for youth in fort cities in Sri Lanka to produce a digital mapping app. With this project we hope to raise awareness among Sri Lankan youth of the rich heritage surrounding them and to find ways to keep this heritage alive.

Dutch support has also been provided to digitise documents from the Dutch period at the Sri Lankan National Archives, aiming at preserving these invaluable documents for future generations and also facilitating broader access to the public. The National Archives in the Netherlands has already digitised all documents related to our shared past and they are accessible online. I hope our cooperation with the National Archives in Colombo will resume soon, as understanding our past and drawing lessons from it today are hugely important for shaping our future.

Later this year we will launch a high-quality museum training program for senior and mid-career level staff of various museums in Sri Lanka. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Sri Lanka is working with the Netherland’s Cultural Heritage Agency and the Reinwardt Academy of Amsterdam University to develop this training, also with involvement of the Department of National Museums. The significance of this project goes beyond the training alone, as it is innovative and of special importance.

In this project both public and private sectors cooperate to provide training bringing heritage and contemporary together. Two different fields of expertise, but I am convinced that both sides will gain knowledge and inspiration from working together. Last but not least, closer cooperation between museums in our two countries will be very useful as the Netherlands is preparing the return of colonial artefacts to Sri Lanka. 

For almost two years, we have also supported contemporary and modern art in Sri Lanka. As a fan of contemporary dance, I am very happy with the progress made by our project partner Natanda, a contemporary dance group, working with youth from all backgrounds across the island to develop their dancing skills while learning from each other’s experiences.

Q: The Netherlands was keen to introduce its cycling culture to Lankans. Is that still on the cards?

A: To the Dutch, cycling is as normal as breathing. We do not think about it, we just do it; it is part of our lifestyle. It is a cheap, healthy and sustainable way to commute and move around. In many rural areas in Sri Lanka, cycling is also still part of daily life. We aim to support Sri Lanka to reintroduce cycling as an important mode of transport and to bring cycling into city life, too. The usage of public space and mobility needs to be re-thought: the infrastructure and people’s mindset needs to be adjusted so it becomes safe and normal to cycle. In this sunny country and especially in the current fuel crisis, I often imagine roads full of electric bicycles powered by solar energy.

We have connected Dutch and Sri Lankan urban planning organisations to share experiences, knowledge and technical aspects of encouraging cycling in cities. And we support a local advocacy organisation called Ride for Life that promotes commuting by bicycle. Recently, in conjunction with our 70 years of bilateral diplomatic relations celebrations, we launched a call for proposals on home to work cycling and saw an overwhelming response from companies and organisations interested in promoting and supporting work-home cycling for their staff. We are currently in the second round of selections and we will announce the winners during our next 70 years event.

Q: Wind power is a major source of energy in the Netherlands. I believe you are involved in promoting this in Sri Lanka.

A: Indeed, offshore wind energy also has a big potential in Sri Lanka: it can be a major source for Sri Lanka’s future energy needs and play a key role in the transition to green energy. So yes, the Dutch experience can be invaluable for Sri Lanka and the offshore wind sector is an interesting sector for Dutch companies. Like Sri Lanka, The Netherlands also wants to achieve zero carbon (CO2) emissions by 2050. So, the Dutch government is taking steps to boost sustainable energy production and find smarter ways of using and saving energy. Sri Lanka has an ambitious target of 70% renewable energy by 2030 and the Netherlands is keen to support Sri Lanka achieving their climate ambitions. We are working with the government and likeminded organisations to support Sri Lanka’s implementation of its ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions to achieve the Paris Agreement climate targets.

Q: The European Union has stressed the need for promotion of human rights and democratic rights in Sri Lanka. Are you satisfied with the progress made in these fields in the past two and half years?

A: As mentioned earlier, the Netherlands aims to protect and promote human rights across the world – both as an individual country and as a member of the European Union. We observe that in many countries around the world, including Sri Lanka, the COVID-19 situation has led to shrinking of civic space. In this light we also closely follow the societal responses to the current economic and political situation in Sri Lanka. We urge all parties in Sri Lanka to support fundamental rights, like the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, and to refrain from resorting to violence.

With regard to the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, we are aware of the progress Sri Lanka has made over the years and also notice the many remaining challenges it has. Together with Belgium and Luxembourg, we therefore made a statement in the last United Nations Human Rights Council session. We are ready to stand by Sri Lanka and support them to fulfil their international human rights commitments. Human rights need to get continuous priority, also or – even – especially in challenging times like these. 

Q: Sri Lanka abstained on a crucial vote on Russia in relation to Ukraine. How does the Netherlands view this?

A: I respect Sri Lanka’s right to take its own stand on any issue as a sovereign nation. However, I observe that the vast majority of countries in the world have condemned the Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The Netherlands also sees it as an unlawful, hostile act. Recently, 14 Heads of Mission in Sri Lanka, including myself, have made a joint request to the Sri Lankan Government asking it to join the global community to call upon Russia to end hostilities against Ukraine. We pointed out to Sri Lanka the importance of requesting Russia to respect international law and the United Nations Charter, which Sri Lanka has also ratified. I continue to urge Sri Lanka to join hands with the growing global community to stop Russian aggression violating international law.