Can the Dutch Come to Terms with the Past (02 Feb 2009)

Vergangenheitsbewaltigung – the German for “struggle to come to terms with the past” is the name of the game today. It originates in the German moral awakening concerning the Holocaust in the years immediately after World War II. But it is applicable to the manner in which the youngest history is dealt with, whether it be the credit crisis, the war on terror, or more specifically the invasion of Iraq. Many, rich or poor, leftwing or rightleaning, religious or secular, are engaged in this struggle. As the philosopher George Santayana remarked about those who forget the past: they “are condemned to repeat it”. A warning that has been a forceful spur to reviewing our lessons learned.
This week it was the Netherlanders’ turn to, once again, wrestle with their past. They may gradually have become used to this exercise. ‘Srebrenica’ is carved in the collective memory here as a military disgrace, and as a shocking example of how good intentions may be derailed in a nation which tells itself that, not quite like the others, it pursues nothing but the good.
In the manichean world that George W. Bush had on offer, this self-image easily got the Dutch to seek comfort under the wings of the United States. It led to “political support” for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In practice this came down to participation in the military occupation of that country after the invasion.
Just as happened in developments connected with the Dutch military disaster in Srebrenica, new facts keep emerging concerning the motives for participation. Dutch fighting units were there from summer 2003 through spring 2005 in 5 shifts of some 1200 troops under responsibility of the British in a southern the province. Many things went wrong there, and new information about that is emerging as well. These newly known facts cause disquiet and political strife.
One thing that has become very clear is that top government officials had, at the very beginning, understood the core of a potentially huge problem right away. They knew that the government could get into considerable trouble by helping with an attack on a sovereign state, and a fellow member of the UN, without a mandate of the Security Council and without the excuse of self-defence. A memo from the judicial department inside the ministry of foreign affairs, which has just surfaced, leaves no room for doubt on that score.
Like their American and British colleagues had done before them, the responsible ministers wanted nothing less than legal support for a decision that apparently had already been made. But they thereby set a trap for themselves. The bureaucrats who had been asked for a legal justification indulged in excessive zeal by warning their minister about the risks, which of course had not been part of the plan. No wonder then that the top official at the foreign ministry had scribbled on the document: ‘Many thanks. Please put away in the archives for posterity, no more discussion about this.’
The minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, is today Secretary General of NATO. But in line with that scribbled remark he can insist that he has never seen the document, and did not know about its existence.
The point of departure for the reasoning of the international law specialists at the ministry had been their assessment that The Netherlands would lose a possible process before the International Court. What they saw as essential was the UN prohibition of violence against a sovereign state, and the well-known exceptions – UN mandate or self-defense – did not apply. This makes the memo from these officials important for everyone who believes that good intentions are sufficient as justification for aggression. As jurists they did not give a hoot for the official reasoning of the Dutch government, which held that Saddam Hussein’s refusal to abide by successive UN resolutions was enough. These resolutions, together with the one of 1991 authorizing the armed liberation of Kuwait, were presented as rendering any new mandate superfluous.
The memo says more, and indirectly also takes aim at the Kosovo intervention of 1999 that also took place without a mandate. It contains a general warning that could not be more clear: “acceptance of a license such as this will open the door for unlawful military interventions. In case countries, not only the United States but also Russia and China, would regularly take the law into their own hands so as to enforce with arms compliance with Security Council resolutions, there would eventually be little left of the fundamental basis for international law, which is still the prohibition of violence.
Jan-Peter Balkenende who was prime minister in 2003, and has been that ever since, has resisted any kind of investigation into the circumstances under which the decision to participate in Iraq was taken. Changing majorities in parliament had supported him in his earlier refusal to have the matter opened up again. Until last Monday when, under a barrage of new questions in parliament, he no longer appeared to have had any choice. One of the agreements that his (Christian Democrat) party managed to extract from its (Social Democrat) coalition partner during the negotiations at the start of 2007 for a new government under his leadership was that this party, which before elections had insisted on such an investigation would not initiate one. Labor’s lame excuse for such cooperation was that even its support would not have formed a parlementary majority for a investigation at the time. As one of the Netherlands’s grey eminences, minister of state Hans van Mierlo, commented: they negotiated away what was not theirs, the unalienable right of the citizens to learn the truth.
All along Balkenende of course gave the impression of wanting to hide something that could bring down his government. Persistent rumors had it that participation with the United States was necessary to get Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who had been sidelined for the leadership of his own party, his current top job at NATO.
But the investigation that the opposition in parliament has wanted is not what it is getting. During the parliamentary debate in the week that has just ended, the Social Democrats were meek, but the opposition on the left as well as the right side of the Dutch political spectrum was up in arms.
What Balkenende has agreed to comes down to a compromise. The opposition wanted a parliamentary investigation, the most effective weapon available to elected representatives to get to the bottom of a questionable political matter. What they are getting is a commission presided over by a former president of the highest court (W.J.M. Davids), which will produce a report in November. Balkenende says that the current financial crisis demands the utmost from his government, and that his commission will settle the questions over Iraq, which will take away the confusion and unrest.
The suspicion is widespread that Balkenende is engaged in a cover-up. The commission is a creature of the the prime minister, and it meets and hears witnesses behind closed doors. A parliamentary investigation, by contrast, is public and hears witnesses under oath. The leftist Social Democrats who agreed to silence about the matter in exchange for a coalition position are, again, the obstacle to find out what many want to know. Attempts from the large leftist contingent in parliament to get them to defect from the coalition have failed.
It remains a question to what extent the Balkenende government can hush up what must be made known. In the parliamentary debate this week the investigation of Lord Goldsmith in the UK was several times a point of reference. This acknowledged international law specialist and adviser to 10 Downingstreet, was supposed to have given his blessing to the invasion of Iraq, but later it became known through leaks that this support had not been as wholehearted as was presented. Only a summary was ever made public.
A Dutch parliamentary majority, consisting of the Christian Democrats, an ultra Christian splinter, and the Social Democrats has, once again bowed before Balkenende’s direction. Does this mean that the Dutch will never get to the bottom of the reasons why they were in Iraq? Probably. Will the Dutch come to terms with their past, be it concerning Srebrenica or Iraq? Perhaps the Dutch are condemned to repeat their past. As has actually been clear since its colonial wars: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is not a Dutch specialty.