Harry van Bommel: Enquiry needed into possible trial of Bouterse in the Netherlands

8 December 2015

Harry van Bommel: Enquiry needed into possible trial of Bouterse in the Netherlands

Foto: SP

If former army chief Desie Bouterse is not going to be prosecuted in Suriname for the December Murders, the Netherlands’ Public Prosecutor should take the job on, argues Harry van Bommel.

'Right and Justice make you free’, goes the Surinamese national anthem. This piece of wisdom is not being put into practice in the country itself when it comes to the December murders. Attempts to bring the matter to court have broken down and seem, as a result of the 2012 amnesty law, to be blocked for good.

The Surinamese Court of Justice has now determined that there must be a judgment. In addition, the Court has responded positively to a complaint lodged against the Suriname Public Prosecutor by families of the dead. These families are also interested parties in this law suit and thus have a right to make a statement. Some have now cautiously expressed confidence in their own legal system. Let’s hope that this turns out to be justified.

The December Murders continue to occupy the minds of the Surinamese people. While it’s true that around half of the population wasn’t even born at the time of the murders in December of 1982, the slaughter is far from forgotten. In addition, the Surinamese-Dutch community is seriously divided over the issue, as I discovered in writing my book Surinamese in de Polder (Literally “Surinamese in the polder”, but figuratively “Surinamese in the Netherlands”)


While one group, following the example of South Africa, advocates a Truth Commission, the other refuses ever to return to Suriname as long as justice isn’t done. A compromise position seems to have been taken by Dew Baboeram, a political writer and professor whose brother died in the massacre. These days Baboeram is causing something of a sensation with his attempts to find the truth by talking to Desi Bouterse, who despite being a principal suspect in the enquiry into the murders, was elected president of Suriname in 2010 and remains in office. These conversations are in turn seen by those who oppose them as ‘treason’.

As a result of the 2012 amnesty law, the Netherlands has again scaled down its relations with its former colony to a minimum. This has happened many time before, but never once has it led to any change in Surinamese policy. Freezing the final small amounts that Suriname is due under the existing treaty will also prove ineffective. It is certainly not in the interests of the Surinamese people, who benefit from projects in the sphere of democratic and constitutional development, education and health care. Putting a stop to projects involving cooperation between local authorities does not, in addition, contribute to the better functioning of official and social organisations. Such measures appear to be designed more for domestic consumption here in the Netherlands than to put effective pressure on Suriname and it would be better all round if they could be reversed.

Double nationality

If the Netherlands is truly committed to a successful judicial process with regard to the December murders, then the government in The Hague should not be sitting still. Our country should at last launch a serious investigation into whether Bouterse had double nationality at the time of the murders and, if it turns out that he was indeed a Dutch citizen, then the Dutch Public Prosecutor should get on with prosecuting him.

In any such prosecution, the advice of the authoritative South African jurist John Dugard could also be followed. He sees the December murders as a crime against humanity, on the grounds that they formed part of a premeditated plan formulated by the military authority. In such cases it is not only those who pulled the trigger who are guilty, but also their leaders.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I would stress that proceeding against Bouterse in Suriname has my full support. But if that isn’t going to happen, prosecution in the Netherlands would be a good alternative. Because right and justice, those important values mentioned in the Surinamese national anthem, are also Dutch interests.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on 8th December 2015 in the national daily newspaper Trouw.

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