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Anonymous victims of colonial injustice

Following the publication ‘The burning villages of General Spoor’ by historian Rémy Limpach, a discussion meeting was organized in Pakhuis de Zwijger Amsterdam “decolonization war Indonesia 1945-1950: irreconcilable memories?” This meeting was about how the Dutch society in recent years has dealt with the memories of the Indonesian decolonization war and how we should deal with that in the future. Here follows the contribution by Wouter Veraart, Professor of Legal Philosophy at the VU University Amsterdam.

Victims of colonial injustice are anonymous figures on painting Dutch Supreme Court

4 November 2016, Wouter Veraart

What do we mean by right and wrong? In February this year the Dutch Supreme Court moved to a modern, impressive building in The Hague. The public hall of this new accomodation of our highest court is decorated with an immense painting (4 to 6.5 meters) from artist Helen Verhoeven, which was unveiled earlier this year. In this painting the Supreme Court is portrayed in a busy area with numerous references to justice and injustice in our history and culture. For example: Spinoza, Hugo Grotius, Erasmus and Judith with the head of Holofernes are represented on the painting. But there are also references to atrocities such as the murder of the brothers De Wit in 1672, the Spanish Civil War and, prominently, the persecution of Dutch Jews in World War II. The central person on the canvas is the President of the Supreme Court, Mr. Lodewijk Ernst Visser, who as a Jew was forced to step down from his high office by the Nazis in 1941, without any significant protest.

Painting by Helen Verhoeven

There is a lot to see in this fascinating painting. Amidst all the references we see the judges behind a long table. On the front we see a mixed audience, among which people of different ethnicity and cultural background can be recognized. Who are these people that seem to origin from many places, but are not part of the Supreme Court itself? They’re not sitting behind the table but are standing in front of it as if they humbly (quietly) await a court ruling. Also, not all of them seem to benefit from the many references to right and wrong – some of them seem to be disconnected from the cultural-historical framework.

Let me put it more bluntly. Why is it that there is not a single reference to colonial injustice, to the black pages of our colonial past, on this ambitious painting about right and wrong and the Dutch Supreme Court? Why is the reference to those others, the formerly colonized – those who have another history because their ancestors have suffered from Dutch slavery or suffered under Dutch colonial crimes in a recent or distant past – limited to anonymous figures in a waiting crowd, with little or no face? Because – I believe – this painting is still part of a paradigm of legal and political silence about the colonial injustice that remains hidden under the carpet of this lavish courtroom.

There is not only this artwork, but also an adage (legal proverb), which is relevant to my story. Ubi judicia deficiunt incipit bellum. Where legal judgments are lacking, the war begins, the famous words of Hugo Grotius which adorn the façade of the new residence of the Supreme Court. Today I would like to adapt this saying: Where legal judgments are lacking, the war is never-ending (ubi judicia deficiunt bellum perpetuum est). By this I mean that without legal attention and recognition we will never be able to come to terms with the colonial past. When it comes to the topic of today, the structural violence during the war of independence in the former Dutch East Indies, not the Supreme Court, but a lower court in The Hague – in the first place with the Rawagedeh ruling in 2011 – made some significant steps. Despite the civil statutory limitation period it held the Dutch state accountable for injustices committed at the time by Dutch troops against local civilians. Via this ruling the court has created an opening in the wall of legal forgetting. Despite of the legal effort to keep the past in the past – something towards which statutes of limitation, both in civil law as in criminal law, are naturally directed – a form of legal remembering is now possible.

The judgment in the Rawagedeh-case, and a few related decisions, of the District Court in The Hague are very courageous because they contain the very first formal legal recognition of wrongdoing in a (until recently) hidden legal past. In these legal decisions, the victims of historical violence very carefully got a face (at least their lives were taken into account in a formal ruling) and a form of compensation has been assigned to a few relatives of some victims of some of those crimes. It would be even better if the Dutch Supreme Court in the near future would render a judgment in this field too, so that the Supreme Court is itself able to correct the blind spot in the painting of Verhoeven.

I want to finish this brief presentation with two comments about which we could continue our discussion today or after today. First, in my opinion, court decisions, including a ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court, are necessary to change the dominant (official) historical narrative of the Dutch past towards a more inclusive historical approach that also does justice to the histories of the victims of structural violence in a colonial setting or during the violent process of decolonization. In order to achieve this aim, it would certainly help when judges and civil servants would think more creatively and less frenetically about compensation. They do not have to focus solely on monetized compensation for what has happened in the past, but could also try to imagine forms of compensation of a much more future-oriented, cultural or collective character.

Second: Who were the people who were subjected to the violence that was approved by the Dutch authorities, or even orchestrated by them, as Limpach now scientifically proved? Do they fall outside our Dutch cultural-historical framework or do they belong in there, legally and historically? How can we honour them (how do we do them justice in the present time), how do we give them a beginning of a face again and give them the place they deserve in national and world history? To achieve that we very much need the different perspectives that we are discussing today and certainly not in the last place the legal perspective. I thank you for your attention.