A painful reminder of our failure to prevent genocide

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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.

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.

True, elections in the Netherlands were due to be held in any case on 15 May, so it is perhaps not as dramatic a move as it at first appears. But it is still impressive when we come to think about the state of political ethics closer to home. For it is difficult enough to imagine ministers in any recent British government – and this goes for Mr Major's administration as well as Mr Blair's – leaving office voluntarily because of something they had done in office, let alone for events that occurred some seven years ago. And yet this is precisely what has transpired in the Netherlands.

The ministers resigned after an official report into the failure of Dutch peacekeepers to protect the innocent of Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, a failure that led to the worst single atrocity of that conflict, the murder of as many as 8,000 men and boys. It was an almost impossible mission for the Dutch troops, lightly armed and massively outnumbered by the Serbs. But the feeling that they might have done more, done something, saved some lives, feeds a sense of national humiliation for the Dutch people. Srebrenica also stands as a powerful example of the shortcomings of unarmed peacekeepers. Above all, it serves as an uncomfortable reminder for all of us in Europe of our failure to deal with genocide as it developed in our own back yard.

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. It should help to heighten our resolve to deal decisively with similar situations now and in the future, not least the war crimes that are perhaps being committed in parts of the West Bank reoccupied by Israeli troops. That, too, is a matter of conscience for the politicians of the West.

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