Be generous to the Indonesian victims
The Netherlands prefers to investigate the past again over acknowledging the suffering of living witnesses
Volkskrant, June 30, 2019, By: Tineke Bennema
For the first time members of parliament in the Foreign Affairs Committee received a small delegation of elderly Indonesians. They discussed the summary executions and torture by Dutch soldiers of their fathers during the Dutch war against Indonesia (1945-1949), which some witnessed as a child. It marked them for their lives. On June 27, these children appeared in court where the State has, for years, refused to recognize their suffering.
On their way to the court they passed the National Archive, which contains an enormous amount of documents from the Dutch East Indies that can be consulted in the context of the large national investigation into decolonization in Indonesia. This research project, which the government has subsidized with 4.1 million euros, will be completed in 2021.
The distance between the court and the archive is close. However there is a gap between what the Dutch government claims to aim with the investigation compared to its attitude towards justice. Ever since 2006, when the Dutch Committee of Honorary Debts (K.U.K.B.) started legal procedures against the Dutch State to obtain reparations for the Indonesian victims of war crimes, the Netherlands has refused to recognize the historical facts, as we can see in the current court case.
For instance the case of the relatives of Yaseman, who was tortured in 1947, in which the court ruled in favor of Yaseman. The State, however, appealed against the decision. Yaseman has died recently. Or take the children of executed Indonesians, the Monji case and others, who were sometimes witnesses of the crimes. They are still waiting for reparations.
Against the background of the national investigation, it is striking that the state lawyer declares: “After a period of more than 70 years it is (in most cases) very difficult, if not impossible, to determine what happened exactly.”
The state does not show empathy either. The argument that the state lawyer uses in the attempt to close the case of the children is that the unlawful executions: “affected the children of the killed men less directly” than their widows.
Whereas lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld provides more and more witness-accounts, documents and longer substantiations, she further encounters the procedural obstacles raised by the state lawyer: such as the late submission of applications or the passing of the statute of limitations.
Time and again the State has lost the lawsuits concerning executions, rape and torture. The court considered war crimes sufficiently proven and pointed out to the Dutch government that the country itself made sure that the war crimes passed the statute of limitations. Since 1945 several cabinets were informed on the basis of internal government reports by Enthoven, Van Rij and Stam, the so-called Excessennota, the testimony of whistleblower Joop Hueting and recent academic research. However, the government now declares that this new investigation “enables us to better understand this period, to answer questions and to learn the lessons from the past for our current and future policy.”
Justice and legislature are, of course, two different pillars of our juridicial system. But it is difficult to explain to the victims that the Netherlands prefers to give voice to its dead perpetrators, while refusing to hear the living victims; that their word, submitted in person, weighs less than archival documents. If the Dutch government is sincere in finding the truth by funding historical research, the government should show the same attitude in court and not speak with two mouths.
Waiting longer makes the Dutch guilt even greater. The government cannot hide behind the investigation into its own actions, to avoid doing justice to the victims. Parallel to the investigation, justice can be done to people of flesh and blood. The judge is clear: the government delayed the judicial process itself for more than seventy years, thereby preventing the widows and children from bringing their case to court earlier.
It is only appropriate for the Dutch government to be generous in compensating the suffering of the last dozens of widows and children when it is still possible. Otherwise the archival investigation has the sole purpose of clearing the Netherlands’ conscience, meanwhile not taking responsibility for these people who are the living link to our past.
Tineke Bennema is historian and journalist