Magazine article The Spectator

Dutch Courage

Magazine article The Spectator

Dutch Courage

Article excerpt

The entire Dutch cabinet has resigned over the publication of the official report into the failure of Dutch troops to prevent the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. This action savours as much of electioneering as of the operation of conscience upon the minds of hardened professional politicians. In an age as sentimental as ours, many people assume that a man who resigns over something, or apologises for it, must have a good heart, and therefore be worth voting for. With elections about to take place in Holland, resignation was the best possible option for the cabinet in the circumstances.

It has been known for a long time that the battalion of Dutch soldiers not only failed to prevent the massacre in Srebrenica, but co-operated with those about to commit it. As for the apparently conscience-stricken politicians, they knew better than anyone of their own failure, for reasons of vanity and self-importance, to accept help from others, especially the Americans. They knew also of the cover-up that their own army officers conducted after the massacre. Thus the sudden awakening of their consciences is implausible, to say the least.

Inglorious as the Dutch role in the massacre was, however, and reminiscent as it was of Dutch co-operation in deporting Holland's Jews under the Nazi occupation, the fact that they were not solely responsible for the massacre should always be remembered. The publication of the report should not be the occasion for the rest of the world to congratulate itself and forget its own complicity. For every photograph of a Dutch officer consorting happily with General Mladic, clinking glasses with him or accepting gifts from him, there is a photograph of a British officer doing the same. No shame that belongs to the Dutch does not belong equally to the British.

First, of course, it must be reiterated that the primary responsibility for an atrocity belongs to those who commit it, not to those who might have prevented it but failed to do so. The people mainly responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, for example, were the people who organised and carried it out, not Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand, all of whom might have brought an end to it much sooner, and all of whose conduct at the time was thoroughly reprehensible. The future always being uncertain, and knowledge imperfect, neither the Dutch government nor the Dutch soldiery could have foreseen that the worst massacre in postwar European history was about to take place under their eyes; though they certainly knew enough to understand that the Bosnian Serbs did not mean the Bosnian Muslims well, and could not be trusted to treat them humanely. …

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