Dutch cabinet resigns over Srebrenica massacre

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The Independent Online

Seven years after Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War, the Dutch government resigned en masse yesterday after a report blamed it for failing to halt the slaughter of more than 7,000 people at Srebrenica in 1995.

In a day of high political drama the entire Cabinet quit, led by the long-serving Prime Minister, Wim Kok, who has been in office since 1995 and was premier when the killings took place, despite the presence of Dutch UN peace-keepers.

In many countries a report by an historical institute into events seven years ago would hardly impinge upon political life, let alone provoke the downfall of a government. But the Dutch do things differently.

The mass resignation in The Hague follows days of media soul-searching over the detailed investigation into the role of the Netherlands in the massacre.

As he addressed the Dutch parliament yesterday afternoon, Mr Kok gave a display which would scarcely be recognised by politicians in Britain.

"The gravity of the report's conclusions cannot be without political consequences," he said. "These consequences are not the result of a specific incident, but an accumulation of events involving successive cabinets."

The immediate effects of yesterday's events are limited. Elections were already due in the Netherlands next month and Mr Kok had already announced he will not seek a third term in office. But the fall of the government reflects the potent legacy of an event which seared itself on Dutch consciousness, provoking a powerful collective sense of national guilt. Campaigners will also hope that the government's decision sets a precedent for future inquiries.

In 1995 Bosnian Muslim victims were sheltering in a UN "safe haven" under the protection of around 120 lightly-armed Dutch peace-keepers. They failed to prevent the men and boys being separated from the women and younger children by Bosnian Serbs who moved them to makeshift detention centres, from which thousands were taken away.

Subsequent testimonies have revealed how teams of soldiers worked through the night under the light of vehicles to shoot their victims. Around 7,500 people went missing and more than 6,000 are known to have been murdered. Women and children were deported.

Hans Blom, director of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation which produced the report, argued last week that the "events that occurred cannot be described as an act of vengeance that got out of hand". He said: "Although they occurred rapidly and in an improvised way, the scale and course of the murders clearly indicate they were organised. Places of executions were sought, transport was arranged and troops were ordered to carry out executions."

Other governments might have avoided commissioning a inquiry which was inevitably going to be damaging. After all, there is a judicial process under way at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague which has indicted key Serb figures and already convicted Radovan Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general, for his role in the atrocities. But the Dutch government went ahead, commissioning the institute, which took six years to do its work, conducting more than 900 interviews.

Its conclusions, published last week, blamed politicians for sending ill-equipped Dutch soldiers into an ill-defined mission with inadequate intelligence, insufficient support and no exit strategy. The 7,000-page document said: "Humanitarian motivation and political ambitions drove the Netherlands to undertake an ill-conceived and virtually impossible peace mission."

Other bodies were criticised including the UN itself. But the document added that the Dutch Cabinet, the Defence Ministry and parliament "adopted an anti-intelligence attitude", refusing to accept help from the US because of "lack of interest" of the military and political leadership.

For days the Dutch media has focused on the government's refusal to take responsibility for the findings, prompting very public soul-searching on the part of a number of cabinet ministers. By yesterday morning two ministers had already announced that they might resign: Jan Pronk, the Environment Minister who was in the government with responsibility for international development in 1995; and Frank de Grave, the Defence Minister, who said he felt a responsibility on behalf of his department even though he was not given the post until three years after the massacre.

All the main parties are implicated. Mr Kok is a social democrat but his predecessor Ruud Lubbers, who is now the UN High Commissioner for refugees and who took the decision to send Dutch troops in, comes from the centre right. Meanwhile, Mr de Grave and his predecessor are Liberals.

Thus, after a meeting of the Cabinet yesterday, Mr Kok and all his ministers and state secretaries submitted their resignations to Queen Beatrix. Mr de Grave said that "the decision was unavoidable after the report". With the established political elite facing a new challenge from the maverick, populist right-wing, anti-immigration campaigner, Pim Fortuyn, Mr de Grave may be right. The Cabinet seems to have judged that the fractiousness of the electorate, which seems profoundly disenchanted with the big parties, would be fuelled without a big gesture.

Mr Fortuyn, a shaven-headed millionaire and former academic who made huge inroads in recent local elections in Rotterdam, was poised to exploit that discontent. He had publicly and pointedly demanded the early resignation of Mr Kok. As one official put it: "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."

It remains to be seen how yesterday's convulsions will influence the elections. In the interim little will change because ministers will remain as caretakers until polling day on 15 May

One of the few concrete effects will be felt close to the source of the convulsions which have gripped the Netherlands – the Balkans. Until yesterday Dutch soldiers were expected to take over from German troops at the head of a Nato-led peace-keeping force in Macedonia. That idea, one Nato official said yesterday, has now been put on hold.