Dutch war crimes: No statute of limitations on Dutch past in Indonesia
Published: 26 November 2008 13:03 | Changed: 3 December 2008 14:10
The Netherlands wants to be at the heart of worldwide justice. This is one of the reasons The Hague is home to the International Criminal Court. But Holland has trouble facing up to the consequences of some of its own past actions.
On Monday, the Dutch government rejected a claim for compensation filed by a survivor and relatives of a massacre by Dutch soldiers in the Indonesian village of Rawagede in 1947 during which 431 men were summarily shot dead.
The Dutch government acknowledged in 1969 that a mass execution, essentially a war crime, took place at Rawagede during Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
In admission came following revelations on a current affairs television programme by a former Dutch soldier on the scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Dutch army in its former colony. In a subsequent report, the number of casualties was put at 150.
The attorney general representing the state in the compensation case does not deny that the massacred took place, quite the opposite. The state, he says in an official statement, “deeply regrets” the events at Rawagede.
The statement is in line with the government’s position in 2005 when the foreign minister of the time, Ben Bot, went to Jakarta for the celebration of Indonesia’s sixty years of independence. During his visit, the minister expressed the government’s “political and moral regret” and said that by opposing Indonesia’s battle for independence, the Netherlands had put itself “on the wrong side of history, as it were”. A brilliant analysis.
The rejection of the compensation claim then, is largely a matter of legality. A full recognition of a crime can have substantial material consequences, and the Dutch government is not exempt from this. In total, some 150,000 Indonesians and 5,000 Dutchmen were killed during the offensives carried out by the Dutch against Indonesian nationalists between 1946 and 1949.
The attorney general is said to want further negotiations which might be a sign the government wants to make a settlement. There is something to be said for this. Personal injury lawyers are not historians. In the same way, history cannot be re-written merely through legal claims.
This applies to the Rawagede case, which saw the Indonesian relatives file their claim against the state only after the Dutch media turned its attention to the case last year and questions were asked in parliament.
But there is something not quite right about the attorney general’s statement. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes. The international community, including the Netherlands, have made a point of abolishing it over the last decades.
It does not matter that the military campaigns in Indonesia was not officially a war, in reality this is exactly what it was. And the fact that Indonesia itself, struggling to come to terms with its own violent post-colonial history, has chosen not to make a big issue out of Rawagede, is not an argument either.
Money cannot not undo past wrongs. But paying compensation would be a just settlement that would at least deliver moral justice to both victims and perpetrators on both sides of the war. There is no statute of limitations on history.