Srebrenica still hangs over Dutch psyche
A month after the death of Wim (Willem) Kok, aged 80, it is appropriate to reflect on the life of the prime minister of the Netherlands from 1994 to 2002.
He headed a “purple coalition” which legalised same-sex marriage, prostitution and euthanasia, stimulated the economy with tax cuts and pressed ahead with privatisation. He also oversaw the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, which strengthened EU institutions.
A former trade union boss, who headed the Labour Party for 16 years, Kok was an accomplished negotiator and ran his government well.
However, his term was overshadowed by the Srebrenica massacre in former Yugoslavia in 1995, when Dutch troops failed to prevent the worst European war crime since 1945.
Kok sent a battalion, nicknamed Dutchbat, on the Bosnian peacekeeping mission.
The Bosnian-Serbs of Republika Srpska, led by General Ratko Mladić and the Scorpion paramilitaries from Serbia, surrounded Srebrenica, a UN-designated “safe area” for civilians fleeing the fighting since April 1993.
But the UN failed to disarm the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina or to force the withdrawal of the Bosnian-Serbs from their encirclement of Srebrenica before Dutchbat was deployed to protect the town.
They were brushed aside as Mladić seized the town of 30,000 people.
Men and boys were held in a camp where at least 8,000 were killed by Mladić’s troops.
The atrocity was declared genocide.
An official Dutch inquiry in 1996 by the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation said the Dutchbat deployment was ill-considered and fundamentally impossible.
The Kok cabinet accepted partial responsibility and resigned.
Also blamed were the UN, the Norwegian general in overall command and poor liaison between Dutch, Norwegian and Pakistani troops in the United Nations forces.
A controversial decision was made in 2006 to issue commemorative insignia to the Dutch troops for their “behaviour in difficult circumstances”. Relatives of the victims and many Dutch citizens were highly critical.
The largest domestic crisis during Kok’s years in power was related to the ruling House of Orange in 2002 when the heir to the throne, Prince Willem-Alexander (now king), got engaged to Máxima, daughter of the Argentinian banker Jorge Zorreguieta. He served two years as minister of agriculture under the bloodthirsty junta of General Jorge Videla.
Kok ended the crisis by persuading Máxima’s father not to attend the wedding and, as queen-consort, she is a popular figure.
In 1996 Kok and his wife Rita toured the US after the Atlanta Olympics. They hired a camper van without an escort, agreeing only to report to the CIA from sheriff’s offices or police each night. They were apparently often not believed by officers.
Srebrenica. Picture credit: Wikimedia