FOR DAPHNE Bergsma standing up for diversity and gay rights is not an issue requiring further discussion but rather a part of the widely-recognised Dutch instinct for protecting human rights and freedoms. The Dutch ambassador to Slovakia believes that the day will come in more and more countries where homosexual politicians will no longer make front-page news simply because of their sexual orientation.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Ambassador Bergsma about protecting minority rights and energy security, about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and found out why several Slovaks have become part-owners of a bench in the Netherlands.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You added your signature to a statement by 20 ambassadors supporting the Rainbow Pride event in Bratislava. What was your main reason? How do you assess the level of public discussion in Slovakia about gay rights?
Daphne Bergsma (DB): Signing the letter was not a matter of discussion. It was a natural move for us both as diplomats and also as individual members of the embassy since supporting and promoting the acceptance of the gay community is part of the Netherlands’ official policies in and outside the country. Support for the rights of gays, lesbians, trans-genders, bisexuals, the so-called LGBT, existed under previous governments and continues as well under the new right-wing, Christian-Democratic government. We supported the Pride organisation financially as well, just as we did last year. Personally, along with several other ambassadors, I took part in a conference organised by the [Slovak] Government Office that addressed the issue of gay marriages since the Netherlands was actually the first country in the world to introduce gay marriage by simply changing the definition of a marriage as being only a union of a man and woman to stating that it is a union between two individuals, with one restriction: you can be married to only one person. We do not support bigamy.
TSS: Some Slovak public figures then signed an open letter which criticised the ambassadors for what they called interference in Slovakia’s internal affairs. How do you respond to that letter?
DB: We do not think that this is interference in internal matters. We are talking about the International Declaration of Human Rights which Slovakia has signed.
These are not the internal affairs of Slovakia but internationally recognised rights and freedoms. I would say that our letter was part of a public debate that is actually now starting here.
If we go back in the Netherlands in the 1960s, I am sure we would find that similar concerns had emerged there, but such debate is simply part of the process that a country goes through in order to make the issue acceptable for the majority. At the beginning this debate always involves stereotypes and fear of the unknown. For example, the gay community [in Slovakia] has been organising the Inakosť movie festival every year, but I heard that already last year one of the feature films was shown in a large cinema and it was full-house. The other day I heard someone ask: ‘Are there any homosexuals in this country because we do not hear about them?’ But my answer would be that the percentage is pretty much the same as everywhere else, we only do not hear about them. The atmosphere is still not open enough [in Slovakia] for someone to say ‘I am gay’. There are countries with openly gay politicians and they no longer make front-page news simply for being gay.
TSS: In the welcoming statement on the homepage of your embassy you write that you wish to inform people about the Netherlands of the 21st century and you mention things like new ways of using sustainable energy and the world’s first energy-generating greenhouse. Since energy security is an urgent issue of the 21st century, could you share more details about your country’s approach?
DB: Energy security is a European subject, basically. We have to make sure that we have the right energy mix and we will not get there by using only renewable energy sources. The only way to achieve the goal is to use energy in a more frugal way: to use less and preserve energy inside and store it. In the Netherlands, for instance, houses are rated from A to F based on their insulation capacity and the amount of energy you need to heat or cool them. Some houses need additional investments in order for them to be used. We have rated cars from A to F as well, based on their emissions and different categories are subject to different taxing. We do want to ensure that newly-built houses are well insulated while we also have some test houses: people build self-sufficient houses with solar panels, roofs with small windmills, with storage capacities with an electric unit where it is possible to charge an electric car. In the end, these houses will be almost self-sufficient and very well insulated, so they will not lose the heat that is inside.
Greenhouses in general are one of our strengths. We are still the No.1 European agricultural exporter and a relatively small percentage of our land is used for agriculture with very high productivity. Large amounts come from greenhouses. The concept, again, is that people have found ways to retain incoming heat so that it can be used when needed. Also some of our greenhouses are built to utilise CO2 emissions from power plants, which on one hand helps the plants to grow faster while the power company can reduce CO2 emissions. It is a win-win situation.
TSS: The rotating chair of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research (ITF) passed from Israel to the Netherlands in March. Will the Dutch leadership have any special focus?
DB: Slovakia is also a member of the international task force and each country’s delegation usually consists of officials from the ministry of foreign affairs and also from the ministry of education as well as individuals who are active in the field. It is a relatively young organisation, which started 10 years ago with only nine members and has grown into a 27-member organisation, with an aim to educate people about the Holocaust and find ways to make sure that these horrors will always be remembered and will never be repeated. The focus of the Dutch chairmanship is the Holocaust and a question is whether other genocides should also be included. We are now at a kind of crossroads within the organisation: 65 years after World War II we are quickly coming to the point when most eyewitnesses are no longer alive and we must make sure that future generations are aware of what happened back then.
Countries that were not victims of the Holocaust are also now interested in joining. These countries have gone through atrocities of their own. I understand that Serbia has applied for membership, which opens questions about more recent developments in Europe. Some northern countries in Africa are interested in membership as well. During our chairmanship we are dealing with these questions: Are we going to expand the focus of the organisation? If we are going to talk about other genocides, there are going to be some very interesting political debates. But it is also very important that the overall research and education commemorating this particularly horrible part of history should be kept alive.
Recently an exhibition about Anne Frank has been travelling in Slovakia and other countries through which students can learn about her fate. Anne Frank is a more accessible gate to a difficult subject since young people of her age can more easily identify with some of her feelings. This should be made part of the school curricula everywhere.
TSS: The Netherlands is an important economic partner for Slovakia. What are some unexplored possibilities in business relations? Which areas of the Slovak economy are interesting for Dutch investors?
DB: The Netherlands has become number one in the origin of foreign direct investments [in Slovakia] and you get the better part of the trade balance. Our strengths are in water management and we are frankly looking into possibilities to do more with this knowledge even in the area of flood management. This is one area where we are seeing a possibility to help out, considering the past years [of flooding] in Slovakia. The other area of possible cooperation is energy: using waste to create energy, for example, but also efficient energy management in the area of housing, energy-efficient houses for example. The Netherlands is ready to share know-how in its innovative technologies in this area, including our innovative greenhouses built nearby power plants.
One other important thing is that I am confident that we can benefit from active policies of the Slovak government to promote transparency in all fields, be it publishing tenders on the internet or changes to the judiciary.
TSS: Since the birthday of Queen Beatrix, three more Slovaks have become co-owners of a bench in the Netherlands. Presumably, it is not any regular bench…
DB: Among the co-owners is Zuzana Wienk of the Fair-Play Alliance, the political ethics watchdog, because she has been promoting transparency, which is good for the investment climate and foreign investments. Oksana Tomová, former Slovak ambassador to the Netherlands, and Jana Rakšányiová, professor of Dutch language at Comenius University, are also new co-owners along with former defence minister Jaroslav Baška, who was first to receive his certificate because of his close cooperation with the Dutch forces in Afghanistan. Then later Adam Bžoch, the best translator of Dutch literature into Slovak and Abram Muller, a Dutchman who is writing a tourist guide for Slovakia for the Dutch public, also joined the ranks of bench co-owners. All these people have done something special to promote Slovakia or the Slovak-Dutch relationship and they received a certificate about their ownership of part of the bench. The owners, even if they never travel in their lives to the Netherlands, will be able to see the bench on the internet.
TSS: In early June Bratislava hosted the Design and Architecture Days (DAAD) which also featured Dutch architects Hanspeter Oester and Tanja Buijs. Your homeland has a strong design and architectural tradition and the concept of sustainable architecture is finding even more attention. Could you share some thought about the Netherlands' architectural tradition?
DB: If you think about typical, traditional Dutch design, you think about Rembrandt or about Van Gogh but we also have a very strong tradition in three-dimensional design where the main philosophy is that this is an art that you can use in your everyday life. There are leading schools of design in the Netherlands and we do have some prominent modern architects who have been setting trends worldwide; just to mention Rem Koolhaas, for example, who designed our country’s embassy in Berlin and who says that architecture is about freedom and also about stubbornness, both of which are strong Dutch characteristics.
8. Aug 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová