Promises follow three weeks after Ministry of Defence claimed responsibility for the 2015 Hawijah incident
The Dutch government is promising to introduce transparency improvements for conflict-related civilian harm resulting from its military actions. The announcement came on November 25th, in the wake of an ongoing national scandal, following the withholding for more than four years of details of Dutch involvement in an airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, which led to the likely deaths of at least 70 civilians.
In a comprehensive letter to parliament on November 25th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld promised to retroactively report the number of missions, locations, target type and weapon deployment for the entire first deployment of the Dutch contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition from October 2014 to June 2016.
In the event of future air operations, such weekly reporting would be standardised. In addition, Bijleveld promised to ensure sufficient capacity at the Ministry to monitor possible civilian harm cases during future military action. And parliament will be confidentially briefed about investigations into civilian casualties as soon as possible.
The government says it is also exploring possible compensation options for victims of Dutch military actions in Iraq.
In the weeks since the government admitted the role of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in the deadly Hawijah strike, the crisis has threatened to engulf several leading political figures – including the Prime Minister.
A parliamentary debate on November 27th focused significantly on to what extent Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been informed about possible civilian casualties in the airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in Hawijah. MP Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked if perhaps “the prolonging of the [Dutch] mission [against ISIS] had been more important than telling the truth”?
Rutte said that Hawijah was not discussed in cabinet meetings before the government had prolonged Dutch military action against ISIS on June 19th, 2015 – just three weeks after the incident. He argued that “it [information about possible civilian casualties in Hawijah] would not have been relevant [for the decision to prolong the mission], as we knew before starting this mission that there was a risk of civilian casualties”.
During the debate, MP Salima Belhaj of the D66 party – which is a part of the ruling coalition – handed in a motion calling for a fact finding mission on the ground to determine how many civilians died at Hawijah.
Defence Minister Bijleveld responded that while she was unsure if such an investigation would generate any new information, she would seriously look into options.
The Socialist Party also handed in a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet, which while supported by some opposition parties, did not pass.
Gisteren dienden we een motie van wantrouwen in. We vroegen zo vaak naar de waarheid, maar we kregen leugens 👇 #burgerslachtoffers #Irak pic.twitter.com/ypM49wxDVz
— Lilian Marijnissen (@MarijnissenL) November 28, 2019
MP Lilian Marijnissen (Socialist Party) handed in a motion of no confidence, claiming that “We asked for the truth so many times, but all we got were lies”.
‘Parliament misled in 2015’
The first public Dutch acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties in the war against ISIS earlier this month followed after an investigation into Dutch involvement in the Hawijah case published by news outlets NRC and NOS.
In a letter to parliament on November 4th, Bijleveld wrote that her predecessor Jeanine Hennis had wrongly informed parliament on the matter. Hennis herself had informed MPs on June 23rd 2015 that “there has been no Dutch involvement in civilian casualties”, despite having received a CENTCOM report stating that claims of civilian casualties in the Hawija incident were deemed ‘credible’ a week earlier, according to Bijleveld.
On November 25th, Bijleveld released a second letter to parliament. She wrote that Hennis had personally informed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bert Koenders) and “presumably” Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Hawijah back in 2015. According to Hennis who is cited in the new letter, her tone had not been alarming, but she did mention that further inquiries would look into the possibility of civilian casualties. Neither Koenders nor Rutte recall having this conversation, although Rutte said he does not “rule out” that it happened.
The letter revealed that CENTCOM had sent the Dutch Ministry of Defence their own additional investigation report on January 22nd 2016, in which they concluded that while the targeting process was done correctly, it was “probable” that civilians had died, while not apparently specifying numbers. Although CENTCOM officials stated that the investigation was now considered “closed”, an official final report never followed. On May 26th of that year, MoD finalised their own additional investigation, drawing the same conclusions.
Bijleveld asserts that “to this day, it is still uncertain how many civilian casualties there were in Hawijah”. However, in December 2018, a senior Coalition military official responded via email to questions by Dutch newspaper NRC, confirming that “the strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties”.
When Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked about this email in the debate on November 27th, minister BIjleveld answered that she had asked for a clarification by CENTCOM, who she claimed had said they were unsure why their spokesperson did not follow the ‘official conclusions’.
Prime minister Rutte continues to state that "until today, it is unknown how many civilians died", while CENTCOM officials confirmed in December 2018 in an email to Dutch media @NRC and @NOS that 70 civilians had died. pic.twitter.com/AA1M8OSZXz
— Airwars (@airwars) November 27, 2019
So far, Bijleveld has continually referred to the standing policy of not providing any information on ongoing Dutch military operations in light of ‘national, operational and personnel security’.This has led to Airwars for several years rating the Netherlands the least transparent and publicly accountable member of the 14-nation coalition against ISIS.
The minister still argues in her letter of November 25th that it is not possible to create a new standard, as assessments of the permissible level of transparency must be made based on the current security situation.
However Bijleveld does now promise a new standard for informing parliament, writing that MPs will confidentially be briefed about all Dutch weapon deployments. In cases where the defence ministry initiates investigation into civilian casualties, parliament will also be confidentially informed as soon as possible. Parliament will further be included in any considerations regarding the degree of public transparency that is considered “permissible in the context of security”.
The Minister writes that further inquiry into possible voluntary compensation for relatives of victims and the affected communities of Hawijah is taking place.
“While many questions remain unanswered on Hawijah, Airwars nevertheless welcomes recent indications by the Defence Ministry that it will improve the reporting of its military actions and any associated civilian harm,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “These announced structural policy changes have the potential to improve transparency for Dutch military actions moving forward, so that mass civilian casualty cases such as Hawijah can never again be hidden from the public.”