Tuesday 25 June 2019

Obituary: Wim Kok

Dutch PM who legalised gay marriage, prostitution and euthanasia

LEGACY: Wim Kok was pro-European, helping to seal European economic and monetary union at the 1997 Amsterdam summitthey
LEGACY: Wim Kok was pro-European, helping to seal European economic and monetary union at the 1997 Amsterdam summitthey

Wim Kok, who has died aged 80, was prime minister of the Netherlands from 1994 to 2002, heading a "purple coalition" which legalised same-sex marriage, prostitution and euthanasia, stimulated the economy with tax cuts and pressed ahead with privatisation; on his watch the Treaty of Amsterdam was concluded in 1997, strengthening the institutions of the EU.

A former leader of the Dutch trade union movement who headed the Labour Party for 16 years, Kok was an accomplished negotiator and ran his government well. Christopher Fildes described him (a little unfairly) in The Daily Telegraph as "the latest in a line of renta-Dutchmen who can be relied on to say the anodyne thing and thus become candidates for international posts".

However, his government will always be associated with the most shameful episode in the nation's recent history: the failure of Dutch troops to prevent - and indeed their facilitation of - the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslim men by Bosnian Serbs in July 1995 in the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica.

Despite clear evidence of murder and brutality, the UN force's Dutch deputy commander signed a declaration with the Serb Ratko Mladic - later convicted of war crimes - that the Serbs had adhered to "all the regulations of the Geneva Convention", then drank a toast with him. The troops of his 13th Air Mobile Infantry Battalion flew home to a heroes' welcome.

That October, the report of a parliamentary commission exposed the craven way UN officials and Dutch officers had reacted to repeated threats, brutality and harassment from the Serbs by handing over civilians under their protection.

It presented a sorry tale of impotence in the face of evil, with UN officials unwilling to discern the obvious through a fog of wishful thinking, and ordinary soldiers cowed by superior force, their morale at rock bottom as the Serbs cut off supplies and refused to let in replacements.

The UN had declared Srebrenica a "safe area" in April 1993 because of continuing Serb attacks on the Bosnian Muslims.

Two years later, enraged by guerrilla raids from the enclave, Mladic decided to wipe it out. The Serbs overran one Dutch observation post after another with minimal resistance, taking 55 hostages. Muslim guerrillas threatened to kill the rest of the force if they gave up the remaining posts. The Dutch pulled back to their compound at Potokari, where by July 11, 1995, 6,000 Muslims, mainly women and children, had taken refuge, with 24,000 more outside.

Next day, the Serbs began segregating the sexes in the crowd and taking the men away; the Dutch then handed to the Serbs the people in the compound, including 250 men. Few of the men were heard of again.

Kok insisted the report revealed "no question of reprehensible negligence", saying the troops had to operate in "barbarian circumstances". No minister resigned, and the coalition not only survived the revelations, but was re-elected in 1998.

Nevertheless, the steady drip of opprobrium took its toll on Kok; he stood down as party leader late in 2001, and further disclosures about the near-cowardice of the Dutch force led him to resign as prime minister with weeks of his term still to run.

Willem Kok was born on September 29, 1938, at Bergambacht in southern Holland, the son of a carpenter. Educated at Nijenrode Business University, he did his military service in 1959-60 and worked briefly for Unilever.

In 1961, he started at the Socialist NVV trade union federation, working his way up to become for 12 years from 1973 its chairman. From 1979 to 1982 he chaired the European TUC.

Shortly after the death of General Franco in 1975, Kok had his passport confiscated by plain-clothes police when he tried to attend a 50th anniversary commemoration in Madrid of the death of Pablo Iglesias, the father of Spanish socialism.

Early in 1977, workers staged a wave of guerrilla strikes across Holland in an effort to break the government's ceiling for pay claims. Kok declared: "We want to show that we control the Dutch labour force now."

In 1982, the NVV merged with its Catholic counterpart after six years of close cooperation to form the country's largest trade union grouping, the FVV. Kok became its leader, mobilising resistance to what he claimed were the Thatcherite, monetarist policies of Ruud Lubbers's centre-right government.

He stood down as a trade union leader before the 1986 election to enter politics, winning a seat in the Lower House.

When Joop den Uyl retired that July after 20 years as Labour leader, Kok took his place, leading the opposition to Lubbers's government.

Wim Kok married Rita Roukema in 1965. He adopted two children from her previous marriage, and they had a son of their own.

Wim Kok died on October 20, 2018.

Sunday Independent

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