The Dutch not guilty of war crimes in Indonesia? – The Jakarta Post

The Dutch not guilty of war crimes in Indonesia?

The Jakarta Post, Marjolein van Pagee, February 22, 2023

On Dec. 14, 2022, the Dutch government published its second official response to the outcome of the study of “extreme violence”, a controversial research project that was also discussed and criticized in this newspaper before.

The first official response goes back to Feb. 17, 2022, when the research outcome was presented to the public. The Dutch government then stated that the violence of 1945-1949 could not be seen as separate from the colonial period before and that “even after the Second World War, colonial thinking remained the leading narrative for Dutch politicians and administrators”.

The latter comment suggested that they believed this was different now. In contrast to 1969, when earlier governmental research was conducted, Dutch politicians now acknowledge that the violence in Indonesia in 1945-1949 was not incidental but structural.

However, as I will argue, this does not mean that their position is indeed anticolonial, as anticolonialism is the notion that colonial occupations were morally wrong and illegal.

When the results of the government-sponsored study were published in February last year, the research team explained that they deliberately avoided the legal term “war crimes” and used the colonial concept of “extreme violence” instead. They did so to keep “deliberate distance from international-law frameworks”.

Already, then, I wondered whether the researchers, even though claiming to be independent, perhaps had received instructions from above? I got the impression that the avoidance of the term “war crimes” was to prevent Indonesians from using the outcome of the study as proof in court cases against the Dutch state.

Strikingly, the Dutch government in their second statement of last December argues that Dutch crimes in Indonesia do not qualify as “war crimes” because the international law that existed in that time did not yet adopt war crimes as a legal category. They write, “prior to the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949, criminal law and international law did not criminalize violations of international humanitarian law as a war crime during a non-international conflict”.

This is a very remarkable statement. The opposite of an international conflict is a domestic affair, such as a civil war. Or: politionele acties (police actions), as the Dutch have long called the reoccupation war in Indonesia.

With their assumption that the Indonesian land once rightfully belonged to the Netherlands, they reveal that at present, colonial thinking is still the leading narrative for Dutch politicians. Apparently, in their eyes a colonial occupation was not illegal.

This also explains why, until this day, the Dutch government refused to legally acknowledge Indonesia’s independence from 1945 onward because then they would have to admit that in 1945-1949 the Netherlands attacked a sovereign nation. The Dutch government does admit, however, that if the crimes were committed today, some of these acts would be deemed “war crimes” by today’s standards.

In fact, this is the legal version of the “in-the-context-of-that-time” argument that so many conservative historians use to defend the colonial human rights violations of the past. Simply put, a brutal act that is not allowed now, was allowed then. In other words, the Holocaust is only a crime against humanity by today’s international law standards, but in 1940-1945 it was perfectly fine.

That is basically the position of the Dutch government regarding crimes against Indonesians!

It clearly shows the double standard of Western colonial countries and their own colonial wrongdoings. There is a huge difference in the way they generally talk about the human rights violations of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. The Dutch government, for instance, would never say that the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46 had no legal ground because there was no law at that time that penalized genocide.

For so many years I have warned about the political motivations behind the financing of this research project. In 2017, via my foundation Histori Bersama, I gave platform to a critical open letter, which was written by two Indonesians in the Netherlands: Jeffry Pondaag and Francisca Pattipilohy.

All these years, our little resistance group has been criminalized as being too radical; more often, we were silenced and ignored. Dutch media outlets commonly rejected all our opinion pieces about this topic. And now, once again, the government letter is completely quiet about the substantial anticolonial criticism the project has received from the start.

Even worse, the second official response shows that Indonesians do not matter to the Dutch government. All that Dutch politicians in The Hague seem to care about are the sensitive feelings of Dutch veterans (the perpetrators of the violence) and the Indo-Dutch and Maluku communities in the Netherlands (who facilitated the reoccupation).

The widows of Rawagede are mentioned but not in relation to the court cases, which had put the matter on the agenda in the first place. In the document there is no single word about the name of the foundation that launched the court cases, the Committee of Dutch Honorary Debts (Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda, KUKB), let alone the name of the founder and chair Jeffry Pondaag. 

The Dutch government pretends that they paid compensation to Indonesians out of their own free will, as if there was no judge that forced them to do so, as if they were just so goodhearted. 

I keep repeating what I have said so many times: The Dutch government’s biggest fear is reparations. When the first claims filed by Indonesian widows from Rawagede in the West Javanese town of Karawang started to pour in from 2008 onward, it alarmed Dutch politicians in The Hague. Subsequently, they, as well as the research institutions that conducted the research, deliberately excluded Pondaag and his foundation as his efforts seriously harmed Dutch interests.

All the horrible crimes that the cases brought to light equally endangered the Dutch positive (self-) image of being a democratic, progressive nation. That is why the government felt that something needed to be done. And what better way to save face than to finance a large-scale investigation and pretend that you are finally taking responsibility?

Yet, the current rejection of the legal term “war crimes” clearly shows that this public attempt to take responsibility is completely fake and that colonial thinking is still the leading narrative for Dutch politicians now.

Nothing has changed; history is only repeating itself.


The writer is a historian and founder of Histori Bersama .