“President Assad of Syria should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court”, Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders publicly stated in 2016. He now may face charges from ICC himself, since it’s been revealed he supported terrorists in Syria.
Many western officials have declared that president Bashar al-Assad should be removed from power. But Assad is still the president of Syria and many of those who have called for his removal and even have tried to overthrow his government were removed from political power themselves. And so one day a meme popped up on social media, that immediately went viral, entitled the “Assad must go curse”, or simply the “Assad curse”. The meme is made up of pictures of western leaders among whom Hillary Clinton, David Cameron and Theresa May exclaiming “Assad must go!”, followed by a picture of Assad asking ‘Who must go?” and closing with a picture of Assad laughing and his opponents looking dismayed, because he is still sitting there and they have just stepped down.
In 2017 Dutch Bert Koenders joined the club. Only one year after he had called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to put Assad on trial, his party, PvdA, dramatically lost the national elections, which forced him to resign as minister of Foreign Affairs and made him the laughing stock of Assad curse jokers on social media.
Not only had Koenders publicly whished for an ICC trial against Assad; it turned out he had dirtied his hands himself in Syria. In 2015 he had responded to a request from the US to help them overthrow the Syrian government by supporting armed groups. The names of these groups were classified. I asked for their disclosure, but my request was denied. However in 2018, a year after Koenders had left office, national newspaper Trouw and current affairs program Nieuwsuur managed to identify some of these so called ‘moderate rebels’ that had received relief goods from Koenders. Among them was Jabhat al- Shamiya, also known as the Levant Front, an organization that the Dutch Public Prosecution Service considers to be ‘salafist’, ‘jihadist’ and ‘a criminal organization with a terrorist purpose’. Support had also been given to groups that worked closely with terror groups, as well as with groups that, according to human rights organizations, had committed crimes of war and crimes against humanity.
Koenders had been perfectly aware of what he was doing. Amnesty International had personally informed him about the misdeeds of Jabhat al- Shamiya, among which torturing, abductions, summary executions and executions for apostasy. And they had asked him to use his influence to ask countries that supported Jabhat al- Shamiya to stop aid immediately. A year later, in 2017, Koenders himself started providing logistics assistance to this very group.
It wasn’t only Koenders’ support for Jabhat al- Shamiya that unpleasantly surprised Amnesty International. The investigation by Trouw and Nieuwsuur also showed that the Sultan Murad Brigade had been among the recipients of Dutch relief goods, among which pick-up trucks, satellite phones and night goggles. This group worked closely with Al Qaida and was involved in various human rights violations and war crimes, including randomly firing missiles at a residential area in Aleppo, which killed 83 civilians, including 30 children. Furthermore Koenders appeared to have supported at least three groups that worked closely with Ahrar al- Sham, which was also labelled ‘terrorist’ by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service.
According to Carla del Ponte, who at the time reported on behalf of the United Nations (UN) on war crimes and human rights violations in Syria, the Dutch government must have been aware of the crimes of the Sultan Murad Brigade and Ahrar al- Sham in detail. She reminds of the fact that The Netherlands held a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which included Del Ponte’s committee, from 2015 up to 2017.
Dutch nationals who are suspected of having fought alongside Jabhat al- Shamiya are immediately being arrested and tried on their return to The Netherlands. Nevertheless Koenders is still walking free, and according to spokesperson Wim de Bruin the Public Prosecution Service has not started and will not start a criminal investigation against him. How is this possible? Public Prosecutor Ferry van Veghel has clearly stated in an interview that, according to Dutch criminal law, it’s not only the active participation in terror groups that’s punishable, but also its facilitation. Then why isn’t the Dutch Prosecution Service going after Koenders? “The Dutch government has never confirmed the findings of Trouw and Nieuwsuur,” spokesperson De Bruin explained to me. “And you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers anyway.”
I find that a bizarre statement. It is beyond doubt that Koenders has supported Jabhat al- Shamiya. This is evident from internal documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which emerged thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests from Trouw and Nieuwsuur – and it also appears from interviews these media conducted with a commander of Jabhat al- Shamiya and others involved.
The former chief prosecutor of the Yugoslavia tribunal Carla Del Ponte pleads for an international tribunal to investigate war crimes in Syria, including examining the involvement of countries such as The Netherlands. However, Del Ponte seems to forget that international tribunals have become obsolete since the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague. This court prosecutes suspects of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and – since 2018 – ‘aggression crimes’ (attack wars). And it only does so when states are unwilling or unable to prosecute these suspects themselves.
This now seems to be the case with Koenders. The Dutch Public Prosecutor has never made an effort to prosecute him, and so the ICC comes into view. ICC has not yet started an investigation on crimes committed during the Syrian War, but once it does, Koenders may not escape prosecution again.
And so, how is Koenders doing today? Has he withdrawn from public life? Is he hiding his face in shame? You won’t believe this: In 2019 University of Leiden appointed him professor of Peace, Justice and Security. He’s teaching young people now how to behave in an international environment.
Koenders has even made a glorious comeback on Dutch national tv. In his first tv appearance after the news had come out about his misdeeds in Syria, talk show host Eva Jinek didn’t bother to raise the topic and ask him about it. She simply invited him to comment on the military tensions surrounding Iran. Just like in the old days. As if nothing had happened.