A decade ago, when the United Nations and Cambodia were attempting to kick start the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, those against it would often argue the crimes committed by Pol Pot back in the 1970s were committed too long ago, were fading from memory, and so it was a waste of good money.
These people disturbed me. My standard response was: ’I’m sure you’d feel the same way if your parents or children were tortured, bludgeoned to death and dumped in a mass grave.’
My advice then was to urge such people – often attached to embassies and NGOs – to get in touch with Jewish groups and try the same argument on Holocaust victims from World War II, who continue to seek justice to this day for the deaths of millions under Nazism.
People do and say stupid things. So do governments – even ones considered forward thinking, generous and a role model for countries elsewhere. In court, the Netherlands toed a similar line when defending itself against war crime charges involving a massacre in Indonesia back in 1947.
Survivors say the entire male population of Rawagadeh, a small village east of Jakarta, now called Balongsari, was shot dead by colonial troops on December 9, 1947 during Indonesia’s bloody fight for independence after they refused to say where rebel Lukas Kustario was hiding. The villagers didn’t know where Kustario was, and most estimates put the ensuing death toll at 431.
Senior brass within the Dutch army recommended the officer responsible, Maj. Alphons Wijne, be prosecuted. It never happened, despite a UN report published two months later that found the killings were ‘deliberate ad merciless.’
The Dutch don’t dispute the massacre, have expressed regret and say 150 were killed.
Eight widows and one survivor have since sought compensation from the Dutch government, which argued the executions were committed too long ago, well after a statute of limitations had expired, and was unacceptable on the grounds of reasonableness and fairness.
Under Dutch law, the statute of limitations lasts for five years.
By the reckoning of Dutch lawyers, one could argue Pol Pot’s surviving henchman, the Nazi leadership, along with those responsible for more recent war crimes and massacres in places like Rwanda and the Balkans, should be let off on a legal technicality – of their own making – with an expression of regret.
Thankfully, a three-judge bench of The Hague civil court didn’t approve, saying the arguments put forward by the Dutch defence were unacceptable.
‘This court finds the state acted wrongly through these executions and that the state is liable to pay damages in terms of the law,’ Judge Daphne Schreuder said, adding the case was highly unusual and that there were no precedents in Dutch law.
Damages are yet to be determined.
Regardless of the settlement, the Dutch courts have done history some justice, and also sent a powerful message that even 60 years after such crimes are committed, a judgment day remains a very real prospect.