International Papers

Dutch Courage

The entire Dutch Cabinet resigned Tuesday after a government-commissioned report found that Dutch soldiers failed to prevent the 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica. The report concluded that the Dutch government, the military, and the United Nations bore some responsibility for the massacre, the worst in Europe since World War II. The Financial Times summarized: “The Dutch battalion was given a weak mandate, lacked the strength to defend itself and did not have adequate local intelligence. … An overwhelming national consensus in favour of humanitarian intervention and a political desire to boost the country’s prestige conspired to produce a mission that was disastrously ill-equipped and confused.” Prime Minister Wim Kok, the European Union’s longest-serving head of government, told parliament that it was “unavoidable and necessary that political consequences are attached to the accumulation of international and national shortcomings.” He said that the amorphous “international community” couldn’t show its responsibility to the victims and survivors, but “I can—and do.” The government will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the May 15 general election, after which the prime minister had already announced his intention to step down.

While most papers praised the Cabinet’s actions, some suggested the resignation was an attempt to help the three coalition parties in the election, where they are facing strong competition from the populist right-winger Pim Fortuyn. Britain’s Independent said the Cabinet worried there would be a backlash against the big parties “without a big gesture.” A Dutch politician told the paper, “If they had not taken this decision Pim Fortuyn could have had a field day arguing that the no one can take responsibility even for a devastating report like that.” Still, everyone agreed the resignation will taint Kok’s otherwise impressive political legacy—during his eight years in power, economic growth exceeded the European Union average and jobs were created at what the FT described as “an unprecedented rate.”

The Independent said it was “heartening” to see politicians take responsibility for events that happened seven years ago. It concluded, “This important symbolic gesture by the Dutch government cannot expunge feelings of inadequacy and guilt, but it is an expression of culpability, a signal that some of the West’s politicians at least are capable of confronting the shameful mistakes of the past.” Canada’s National Post reminded readers that “Bosnian Serb perpetrators were the true evil-doers” and declared that the Dutch “have shown governments around the world how they are supposed to behave, thereby serving democracy everywhere.” Toronto’s Globe and Mail suggested that others were shirking responsibility:

[T]he Netherlands was the junior partner in the Srebrenica disaster. When the so-called safe havens were created, the United States, Britain and France were warned that the enclaves would be impossible to defend. And all three balked at a Dutch request that the UN troop presence be significantly bolstered. But you wouldn’t know that from anything said thus far in Washington, London, Paris or UN headquarters in New York. Far easier, it seems, to let the Dutch take the fall.