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Netherlands: Government Resigns Over Damning Srebrenica Report

  • Don Hill

A day of accounting arrived yesterday for the Netherlands government, seven years after Bosnian Serbs troops brushed aside Dutch peacekeepers in the enclave of Srebrenica and massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims. Following a five-year investigation, an independent report recent blamed the government of Prime Minister Wim Kok for the tragedy. Yesterday, the government resigned. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the gesture has been well received in Holland, internationally, and in Bosnia, but there are more reverberations to come.

[The Dutch army's top general resigned today over the failure of the country's peacekeeping soldiers to prevent the slaughter at Srebrenica, Reuters reported. Army Chief of Staff General Ad van Baal, 55, was the second-highest-ranking officer in the Dutch Army at the time of the massacre.]

Prague, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A prominent Dutch newspaper editor says the resignation yesterday of Netherlands Prime Minister Wim Kok and his coalition cabinet caught the Dutch public by surprise but commanded its approval.

The resignations followed a five-year investigation of Dutch culpability in the massacre by Bosnian Serbs of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia in July 1995. A Dutch unit of 110 soldier-peacekeepers was on duty in Srebrenica at the time.

Michiel Goudswaard, deputy editor in chief of the respected Dutch newspaper "Het Financiele Dagblad," says he, too, was surprised, but says the gesture was characteristic for Kok.

In a telephone interview today, Goudswaard told RFE/RL that he believes Kok was deeply affected by the tragedy at Srebrenica: "Then he said [in effect], 'Well, the buck stops here. I am responsible. I'm not guilty for the killings. That was [Bosnian Serb General Ratko] Mladic. He was guilty in that sense. But I was responsible for what has happened and the situation that occurred in Bosnia.'"

Newspaper editorials in Holland and in the West generally received the news of the government's resignation positively. In London, "The Independent" commented, "In an age when politics and politicians are held in unusually low esteem throughout the world, the resignation of the entire Dutch government on a matter of conscience is surprising and heartening in equal measure."

It was in the second week of July 1995, near the end of the 1993-95 Bosnian war, when Mladic lead a powerful Bosnian Serb advance and sent an estimated 30,000 Bosnian Muslims fleeing to the UN-declared safe haven of Srebrenica. Mladic's forces entered the enclave. The Bosnian Serbs took away and murdered up to 8,000 people, mostly men and boys.

At first, when news of the atrocity at Srebrenica reached the outside world, including the Dutch public, the Dutch government, and military disclaimed any failure. They noted that their 110 lightly armed peacekeepers had been powerless to oppose the Bosnian Serb onslaught.

Horror and outrage continued to mount, however.

Five years ago, Kok's government yielded to the pressure and commissioned the independent Netherlands War Documentation Institute (NIOD) to investigate what had actually occurred. NIOD, without a deadline, took until April to deliver its report. Its findings were explosive.

NIOD said the Dutch government made the decision in 1993 to send its troops to Bosnia partly for reasons of prestige and without sufficient consideration. It said the Dutch peacekeepers did nothing to defend the refuge-seekers, even appearing to collaborate in their eviction from the enclave. It said the Netherlands' high military command engaged in a massive cover-up for years after the tragedy.

The NIOD report discloses little that is new. This same information had emerged earlier, and an organization in the Netherlands called the Interchurch Peace Council even had issued its own investigation and analysis that anticipated the main points of the NIOD report.

Our correspondent spoke today with Dion van den Berg, author of the Interchurch Peace Council study. Van den Berg said it took the NIOD report to bring home to the Dutch government and the public the full sense of the country's moral failure at Srebrenica.

"They [the Kok government] sort of pushed away the discussion for many, many years. And then, when the time was there to really look into that particular mirror, they saw how really ugly the image was. And there was no other way out than to make a dramatic gesture," van den Berg said.

So Prime Minister Kok yesterday announced his resignation and that of his entire cabinet.

"Today, we had the second round of the NIOD report about Srebrenica. I will go to the Queen in a little while, and I will hand her the resignation of all the ministers and secretaries of state," Kok said.

Van den Berg said the Interchurch Peace Council now is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre. He said the first reactions to NIOD's findings emphasized the 1993 decision process and the post-1995 cover-up. He said that for the Dutch public -- and especially for the Srebrenica survivors -- that is the wrong emphasis.

"They are not interested in decision-making in '93. They are not interested in the way high-ranking [Dutch] generals tried to misguide the minister [of defense] and parliament after July '95. They are interested in the question [of] why there was no possibility to save their husbands and their sons and their fathers," van den Berg said.

Kok will remain in office as caretaker prime minister until previously scheduled elections on 15 May. Van den Berg said the Interchurch Council is calling on Kok to travel to Bosnia and explain to the Bosnian people what happened and what steps the Dutch government is taking to shoulder its responsibility.

"It would be a very logical step. It would be, you might even say, a courageous step," van den Berg said.

Newspaper editor Goudswaard said he believes the Dutch people are satisfied that Kok has acted sincerely and with integrity in announcing his resignation. Kok already had said publicly that he would not be a candidate for re-election.

Goudswaard also dismissed speculation that Kok ordered the lengthy investigation in the hope the crisis would cool off before his government was forced to face it.

"No. He would have liked to have had the facts on the table much earlier. But the scientific researchers took a long time to do their thorough job," Goudswaard said.

Even before the NIOD report, the Kok government coalition had been weakening politically, however. The Dutch government, headed by Kok's Labor Party, long has been one of the most liberal in Europe. Recent polls suggest that more conservative forces have been gaining strength in the country as elections approach.

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