x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Netherlands acknowledges its rights transgressions

Case over killing of 400 people by Dutch forces in an Indonesian village in 1947 is part of a growing willingness to revisit past failings.

The human-rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld sprinkles flowers on the graves of victims of the Rawagede massacre West Java province last month after the Dutch government offered a formal apology to Indonesia for the 1947 incident.
The human-rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld sprinkles flowers on the graves of victims of the Rawagede massacre West Java province last month after the Dutch government offered a formal apology to Indonesia for the 1947 incident.

AMSTERDAM // The ghosts of the Netherlands are coming back - from the atrocities of its centuries-long rule in the Dutch East Indies to its treatment of Jews in the Second World War and Bosnian Muslims.

As 2011 drew to a close, Amsterdam, under court orders, apologised and paid compensation for a mid-1940s massacre of Indonesians - one of many both documented and unrecorded under its rule of the archipelago.

It is the latest of several instances of the Dutch past catching up with the present.

"It seems as if the past, rather than receding in the mists of time, is coming closer," wrote a columnist for the mainstream Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant.

After years of presenting Dutch rule in Indonesia as largely benevolent, the latest apology, for the massacre of 400 people in an assault in the war of independence that followed the Second World War, has drawn broad public support.

Also coming back to haunt are issues ranging from the role that Dutch peacekeepers played in the fall of the UN safe haven of Srebrenica in 1995, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serb forces, to the failure of the Dutch government to speak out during the Second World War against the deportation of Jews by the German occupiers.

Both the Indonesian case and the Srebrenica issue were handled by Amsterdam-based human-rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld. Last July, a Dutch court held the state responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims whose families she represented.

The three were handed over to the Serbs by Dutch peacekeepers. Now, she wants prosecutors to indict the commander of the unit. That is expected this month.

She and other legal experts in the Netherlands say the court decisions may reflect a changing attitude to serious crimes involving the state, whenever they happened.

"I've been working on these kinds of cases for 12 years and we are winning more lately," Mrs Zegveld said, without speculating.

But fellow human-rights expert Wilem van Genugten said he detected a changing dynamic in the courts.

"We had the example of Srebrenica, where the Netherlands took shelter behind the United Nations and the concept of immunity used by the organisation," he said.

Judges nowadays tend to look at the reality behind such arguments, he said.

"What judges do look at, are the facts of the case, which are still very sharply remembered in the case of Srebrenica."

The Indonesian case, by contrast, focused on a very old event, the massacre of more than 400 men, most of the male population of a hamlet on the island of Java in 1947 called Rawagede at the time and now known as Balongsari.

Dutch soldiers carried out the bloodbath as they were seeking out nationalist insurgents.

The Dutch battle against Indonesian independence, which killed thousands of people, is one violent episode in the blood-soaked history of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, which goes back to the early 17th century.

But for many surviving colonial Dutch civilians and veterans as well as Indonesians who fought on the side of the Dutch, things were not as clear-cut as all that.

During World War Two, Japanese occupiers supported a home-grown force to help police the country and to foster a sense of anti-colonialism. Long-time dictator Suharto was trained by the Japanese.

Indonesian independence fighters attacked and locked up Dutch civilians who had just been freed from Japanese detention camps

The Dutch now seem more open to apologising for and compensating Indonesian victims.

Some of the veterans, many of them conscripts, have expressed regret. Many are bitter.

"What they really feel is that it is very difficult to recreate the events from that chaotic period in the 1940s and then from a comfortable position to judge them," said Wil Patist, of the veterans' organization VOMI.

Others deserted to join the Indonesian forces. Some were so disillusioned with what the Dutch forces did they never went home.

The Dutch scholar and Indonesia expert Nico Schulte Nordholt has been campaigning for a broad apology in which the Dutch authorities take responsibility for what happened rather than just expressing regret, which has already happened.

The Rawagede case was limited to just nine family members of survivors, he pointed out.

"This means the Netherlands, the government and the parliament, still has not apologised for the whole period, the four and a half years of the war for independence, but only for the nine cases."

And the abuses are far from confined to the brief war of independence.

Mrs Zegveld said an overall apology was unlikely but expressed optimism about individual cases.

"We opened the door to that because this case was quite clearly delineated and it was clear who the victims were. I think we are not going to get an apology for the whole of the struggle for independence but we may see one for victims that were avoidable," she said.

The effects of the end of the colonial era are also still being felt in Indonesia itself, where several conflicts can be traced back to that time. For example, the Dutch-ruled part of New Guinea was promised independence and Indonesian security forces stand even now accused of committing human-rights abuses in putting down an insurgency there.

While the Dutch government is widely seen to have acted properly for Rawagede, it seems to be retreating from close scrutiny of the human-rights situation in its former colony.

"The current Dutch government is giving priority to economic relations and in contrast to previous governments it gives only secondary consideration to human rights," said Mr Schulte Nordholt.

Indonesian human-rights organisation KontraS and others hope the Dutch precedent over Rawagede will spur investigations into Indonesia's own battered human rights record.

"Especially because things are still going on, it is important to look at the past," said Indria Fernida of KontraS.

As for the Netherlands and the various intrusions of its past into the present, Mr Schulte Nordholt said at least there appears to be an increased awareness of issues that were covered up in the period immediately after the Second World War. "It is part of the spirit of the time to acknowledge that in the past we only had time for reconstruction… There is a sense that there is not enough awareness in society of the things that happened to previous generations."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae


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