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Government answers Senate's questions on Dutch involvement in Iraq war – at last

7 December 2008

Government answers Senate's questions on Dutch involvement in Iraq war – at last

This week the Senate is at last to receive an answer to its hundred questions on the government's involvement in the war against Iraq. SP Senator Arjan Vliegenthart, who put the questions together with Senators from the Labour Party (PvdA), Green Left, D66 (centrist liberals) and the PvdD (Animal Rights' Party), is curious. "The cabinet has taken almost six months to give an answer to our questions," he said. The length of time taken should mean that we get really good answers. Evasive and wishy-washy answers will not be acceptable."

Arjan VliegenthartHalf a year sounds rather a long time to take to answer a hundred questions. Why did it take so long?

We put a lot of work into our questions, so perhaps that was the reason. In principle there's nothing wrong with having to wait. Quality is more important than speed. But what's striking is that when it came to the Lisbon Treaty the government was able to answer a hundred questions in three days, but for Iraq it took six months. That tells you how sensitive this subject remains.

Last Saturday Labour Senator Klaas de Vries said on the radio that an enquiry into Dutch involvement in the Iraq war was never seriously discussed during the negotiations that led to the current Christian Democrat-Labour-Christian Union coalition. Does that surprise you?

If that is the case, it's certainly very strange. During the last government (Christian Democrat-Liberal), Labour (then in opposition) was, like the SP, a fervent supporter of such an enquiry. During the 2006 election it was one of the points which spearheaded their campaign. If such a central point was then simply given away in the formation of the new cabinet, this isn't really credible. Looking into the truth should not be a matter for making deals.

Why is it so important that more clarity is brought to the question of the Dutch involvement in Iraq?

Taking part in a war is one of the most far-reaching decisions that you can take as a country. Such a matter must be carefully considered and afterwards very carefully examined. What have you done and was it, with hindsight, done sensibly or badly?

Is the Netherlands a case apart?

You can say that again! Internationally the Netherlands is taking a strange, unique position. In many countries, including the the United Kingdom and United States, there have been parliamentary enquiries into the war in Iraq. In addition, investigators in those countries have, on the basis of interviews with the most important policy makers and politicians, been able to reconstruct the decision-making process surrounding the war in Iraq. From this a reasonably detailed picture has been created of how the decision-making in those countries proceeded – and what aspects of it went wrong. As far as other countries are concerned, their governments and parliaments have been able to learn from these findings. In the Netherlands the cabinet, and above all Premier Balkenende, have blocked any such enquiry. So here we can't draw any lessons. That's stupid and dangerous.

What if the government's answers turn out disappointing?

I don't want to anticipate that. Putting questions is an elementary parliamentary right. This includes ensuring that such questions are answered well, and honestly. Otherwise parliament cannot fulfil its function of monitoring the government. But in addition to putting questions both houses of parliament have the constitutional right to conduct a parliamentary enquiry in order to clarify important issues. The government has it in its own hands to determine which way we go, whether all of our questions are answered properly or if we call for another step. As a country, also, we cannot simply permit ourselves to close our eyes to what has happened in Iraq.

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