Consul General Janet Alberda returned to Erbil from the Netherlands last week after attending a ministry-level ambassadorial conference, which she describes as 'important because we have a new cabinet, a new minister for foreign affairs, a new minister for foreign trade and development cooperation.'
Alberda spoke to Rudaw English in an interview on Sunday, when she explained new policy making 'Iraq, in its entirety, a priority for my government' in 2018. The CG explains that a Dutch delegation will be present at the Iraqi reconstruction conference in Kuwait, and in this new phase the Netherlands' government will be 'part and parcel' of the post-ISIS phase in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region. She notes that the Dutch military has been present through the ISIS conflict and will continue to do so.
The diplomat also touches on Dutch funds to stabilize Shirwana Castle in Kalar that was badly damaged in a string of recent earthquakes. She expresses that the Netherlands has institutions available to assist the agriculture sector in the Kurdistan Region, as well as other sectors that could be further privatized to provide more jobs.
On the international flight ban: 'It has not impacted much the interests of the Netherlands, but it has impacted, I think ,the country and society, as a whole.'
Rudaw English: What have been the Netherlands' humanitarian focuses through the ISIS war, and how its viewing stabilization and return in this rebuilding phase?
Thank you very much for inviting me and it's a pleasure to be here at Rudaw. Like you, now I've been here for one-and-a-half year. I think that we all realize now that ISIS has been militarily defeated, although there are pockets, there is a new phase that has come for the country including Kurdistan, the region, and we need to refocus our efforts on the situation and what's happening. In the past, apart from our military contribution to defeat ISIS, we've been supporting Iraq including the Kurdistan Region with humanitarian support. We have a Dutch consortium of humanitarian organizations that provides support, particularly in Duhok province, but also in Kirkuk, and the Nineveh/Mosul area.
We've also been focusing hard on the demining because when it comes to providing safe livelihoods for people and you want people to return to areas that have been liberated from ISIS, you particularly need to look into the stabilization efforts and we know that there are a lot of mines in this country for a very long time. New mines have been laid by ISIS therefore we finance a lot of demining organizations and we have also been
Iraq can actually learn from experiences from countries like the Netherlands and vice versa.
contributing to some of the UN efforts to stabilize areas.
For this conference that is going to take place, there will be a Dutch delegation of six, headed by our deputy director of international cooperation. There we will emphasize that the Netherlands' government will stand by Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, for making sure that the new phase that this country and this region is to focus on, that we are going to be part and parcel of that...
The Iraqi Reconstruction Conference is going to start this week in Kuwait. You are very active on Twitter. One of your recent tweets was: "Where is the rain?" Water and electricity have been one of the critical needs of the Kurdistan Region. Have you seen this first hand or have people communicated their concerns to you?
I see it firsthand. If you drive through the country, you see that it's very, very dry. And coming from a country like the Netherlands, climate change is
You also provide an alternative voice, and I think the alternative voice is very important.
something that is affecting us all, globally, and I can see that it is also very much affecting this part of the world. And it's not just the lack of rainfall, although there has not been much rain over the last period here...
But it's not enough. It also has to do with the management of your natural resources, and this is really an area that Iraq can actually learn from experiences from countries like the Netherlands and vice versa. We are called "the Netherlands," so we are very low, we had to deal with a lot of water challenges and of course here you do not have that water or a sea next to you, but you have water resources that are in dire need of being sustained. I think this is an area where our cooperation can grow in the future.
ISIS has been declared militarily defeated by PM Haider al-Abadi in Iraq. Europe hasn't been immune to terrorism. In what way is the Netherlands going to continue to support the Kurdistan Region and Iraq to prevent a resurgence or ISIS remnants from re-establishing what they had and in threatening the rest of the world?
It's the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Our military are still here. We are a part of the anti-ISIS coalition, and we will continue to be here until there is a
I think it's also very good that there is a delegation coming from the KRG to the Kuwait reconstruction funds.
decision on how we will go into the after-phase. Because if you look at the coalition presence, we are in Phase 3, but going into Phase 4, which has to do with providing a safe stability and security framework.
But apart from the military and making sure that there are law enforcement agencies functioning, you will also like to have more access to education because all these people that have been in camps for a very long time and we know that there are still pockets. If people don't have opportunities for jobs, education, hope for their next life, then there will always be roots for radicalization. And we have in the Kurdistan Region recently started after the summer with two activities, which are implemented by an organization called SPARK. They provide training to teachers, both in Erbil and Halabja, and that is a kind of train-the-teachers approach. That is really focusing on all pocket of radicalization, potentially in schools.
And there are going to be activities where we start websites like Mosul Eye, for example — we are all a fan of the Mosul Eye and what he is doing in Mosul — but I think these kinds of efforts need to be complemented, complemented, complemented. And that you also provide an alternative voice, and I think the alternative voice is very important.
So when you recently returned to the Netherlands, you also met with parliamentarians. How did they see the situation in the Kurdistan Region and in Iraq?
It was actually very good to be home in the Netherlands last week. Every year, my Ministry organizes an ambassadorial conference. This time it was important because we have a new cabinet, a new minister for foreign affairs, a new minister for foreign trade and development cooperation. Also, in our new coalition agreement, Iraq was mentioned as a focus country.
I think sanctions in whatever sort and whatever kinds are not helpful to stabilize and focus on the future.
This means Iraq, in its entirety, will become a priority for my government. What this means is apart from Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq; we will open up more instruments to get into that second phase after the ISIS defeat. So to try to really seek those opportunities for how you can make this country more sustainable. We met with our king, our queen, new ministers, parliamentarians, and there is a very keen interest in our parliament.
Also two parties in our coalition have been coming here for a long time — both to the central parts of Iraq, as well as to the Kurdistan Region — they have very good ties, so there's always a very keen interest by a parliament in this part of the world. And what they asked me, was for the situation of minorities, every time I meet with them, so how that is going. But also, the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. So we read a lot about it, but how is the situation on the ground.
What concrete progress has been made between Baghdad and Erbil since the fallout in October?
We'll they are talking...and I'm sure there are more talks ahead. I think it's also very good that there is a delegation coming from the KRG to the Kuwait reconstruction funds. It's a large delegation, as well, headed by Dr. Ali Sindi, the minister of planning, the minister of housing, three governors. I think that's very, very important. That's also in the file of my delegation — going there if we talk about reconstruction for areas inside Iraq of course we know that the situation in Anbar cannot be compared to the situation in Duhok. On Nineveh, it cannot be compared to Duhok, but it's important to focus on all the vulnerable pockets inside Iraq as a whole. It's important that they are there, so that shows there is some cooperation and preparedness.
How has the international flight ban impacted the interests of the Netherlands?
It has not impacted much the interests of the Netherlands, but it has impacted, I think, the country and society, as a whole ... I think sanctions in whatever sort and whatever kinds are not helpful to stabilize and focus on the future. Of course when the referendum took place we all pointed out there were concerns about the timing and its implementation, as it was against the wishes of Baghdad and the region, and that we expected something to happen. That something actually came five days after the referendum taking place, and it's taken on and taken on. And the longer the
...we will have to look into other visa possibilities
international flight ban is still there and there's not any good outcome of discussions between Baghdad and Erbil, that's not good for the country as a whole.
However, it has impacted some visits that I would have received otherwise. But when it comes to planning, in terms of what we are going to do here, not really. Of course I am also concerned for the Dutch (and Dutch-Kurdish) community here in the region and those in Netherlands who want to return to the region and the enquiries they have. We have an estimated 5,000-7,000 Dutch passport holders in the Kurdistan Region who have questions about Iraqi visa, visa fines, travel via Baghdad etc... For this and other reasons it has impacted our Consulate General.
On the other side of the visa issue, we hear from a lot of younger people who want to travel to the Netherlands, who want to travel to Europe, what is your message to them about obtaining visas for study, participating in exchange programs, or just for tourism?
At the present we have a visa policy that only applies to business visas. So it is not possible to apply for a tourism or family visit visas. Now we do have an Orange Carpet list that means if you have been invited by an institution in the Netherlands, exceptions can be made. Study visas are also possible to be obtained through the Netherlands MENA Scholarship Programme, which offers scholarship to professionals for courses in the Netherlands. Information can be found on the Netherlands Consulate General's Facebook page or by visiting www.studyinholland.nl. I think also when more delegations come over with economic instruments that are opening up for Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, we will have to look into other visa possibilities. Right now, for tourism visa, we have to re-direct people to the Netherlands embassies in the neighboring countries.
You have made comments about more transparent, accessible government within the Kurdistan Region. What's your opinion on how the KRG is doing to progress or not in these areas? And how is the Netherlands assisting or advising the KRG?
I think before 2014, the KRG had made pathways to really start up with an economic reform agenda. Now that agenda was not prioritized or set aside for quite some time -- which is understandable given the presence of ISIS. Now they are picking things up again, which I think is very positive like the
Now there's a fact that there is not a real agricultural policy, yet.
audit report that was presented by Deloitte. I think that was a good step. And what they have done on the biometrics, good step; the fact that the KRG parliament is up and running again, good step. But it can do so much more because for us, the investment climate here and the concerns we receive by companies, individuals ... no it's not really the way to promote investment and these kinds of things.
You have held some forums at universities and institutions, is this part of developing the democratic and civic organizations in Iraq and in the Kurdistan Region?
I wish I could do so much more. I think the fact that Iraq has become a priority country, meaning that we will look much more critically at the investment climates and the economic opportunities. This is really going to be an area where I see a lot of opportunities for my government and
So the public sector is too big here. It needs to really downsize.
institutions. For example, we will bring in the University of Wageningen, which is a very famous global university on agriculture.
They want to do much more on the agricultural sector, but I think the problem with the agricultural sector is not just that there are agricultural committees. Now there's a fact that there is not a real agricultural policy, yet. Or the government is too much involved in the agricultural sector and needs to get out; it needs to really get the private sector to be here, as an example.
And what about the tourism sector in the Kurdistan Region ... Have you been to some of the historical bazaars, the castles or citadels, mosques, churches, Yezidi temples? What is your impression of the diversity?
I think this region offers a lot of diversity and I think this region also offers a lot of opportunities. But you need to really work and get your act
I believe this is the case with The Shirwana Castle in Kalar.
together if you want these opportunities to flourish. You can think of for example, young people: What kind of opportunities do they have for jobs? So the public sector is too big here. It needs to really downsize. Private sector, people don't ... otherwise you are perhaps part of a family or a certain type of relationship. I think the opportunities that are here, they need to be exploited. Tourism is definitely an opportunity. I have seen the whole region. I've been from Darbandikhan to up north, it's beautiful.
An organization in your country has contributed to the Kalar castle rebuilding. Iraq has a lot of world heritage sites and sites that aren't world heritage, but need to be preserved. Why did this organization decide to make these contributions after the earthquake?
The Prince Claus Fund is a very important cultural organization in the Netherlands that is support by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Prince Claus Funds supports cultural heritage under the belief that if you don't support cultural heritage, that will go — it's a loss of history. I believe this is the case with The Shirwana Castle in Kalar.
A few earthquakes have hit this region recently and we are concerned if more were to happen, then it would ruin the castle completely, that's why it needs immediate stabilization. Architects and engineers together with the Municipality of Kalar district will start the restoration as soon as the funding is finalized. This delay happened partly also due the international flight ban.