MH17: Compare Dutch dignity with Cameron's bombast

The PM might have given Nick Clegg some space – after all, he is half-Dutch and a Dutch speaker

Robert Fox
(Image credit: JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

“This terrible disaster has left a deep wound in our society,” King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands said in a short television address yesterday, after a private meeting with relatives of victims of the Flight MH17 disaster. “The scar will be visible and tangible for years to come.”The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who also attended the meeting of families in Utrecht, spoke of the nation’s growing outrage. “All of the Netherlands feels the anger. All of the Netherlands feels their deep grief. All of the Netherlands is standing with the next of kin.”

Some in the Netherlands don’t think their government is doing enough: they accuse it of being “too soft.” Some have demanded Nato troops are sent to secure the crash area. Some commentators have referred back to the massacres of Bosnian Muslim men at Srebrenica 19 years ago, when the Serb forces overran the UN camp then under Dutch control.

But the Dutch have sent their own independent forensic and mortuary experts, and along with the Malaysian authorities have started their own separate investigations. The Dutch national prosecutor has started proceedings to "look at the allegations of murder, war crimes and the downing of a civilian plane".

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This is the beginning of a long trail – which could lead to somewhere very interesting and very alarming for Mr Putin and his protégés in charge of the pro-Russian militias of the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Compare the collective angst, and dignity, of the Dutch and their leaders – who lost 193, the majority, of MH17’s 298 victims – with the rhetoric, verging on bombast, of President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron.

Again they have "demanded" that their European allies and partners wind up their resolve and stick tougher sanctions on Moscow. They want the Russian rebels and their backers in the Russian forces and regime to allow full access to the crash site – or else. The same demand was enshrined in yesterday’s UN Security Council resolution – which even Russia didn’t dare veto.

But Obama and Cameron have a problem. Nationals from both their countries have died in the outrage, but on nothing like the scale of the Dutch and the Malaysians – and one would have expected a bit more acknowledgement of this.

It might have been apposite if Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, had been given space to say more: after all, he is half-Dutch, and a Dutch speaker – a fact the Prime Minister seems to have forgotten.

European countries which are extensively dependent on Russian gas, like Germany and Italy, might find it a bit tough to swallow Cameron’s exhortations for Europe to try harder. After all, Cameron has just fashioned a Eurosceptic government after last week’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Furthermore, his new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has lost little time in telling the world through television that he doesn’t like the EU much, and Britain should quit.

Besides, sanctions are not much of a solution to anything in the long term. Yes, they can bite hard for a crucial period, as in Iran. But the side effects and unintended consequences can be devastating to the poor and innocent third parties. The sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia some 20 years ago caused damage and a flourishing of new forms of criminality still felt across the Balkans and beyond to this day.

The route chosen by the Dutch state prosecutor may not be such a bad idea, after all. The case could come to the European Court of Human Rights, or to a war crimes tribunal. Either way, Putin will not like it, however much his state propaganda and media try to bluster and look the other way. Heads of state and government can and have been prosecuted in recent times – most notably the Liberian autocrat Charles Taylor.

In the meantime the western allies must fashion a coherent security plan for eastern Europe, Ukraine and other lands on Russia’s border with important Russian minorities. “Somebody in Nato has to come up with a plan,” a Nato insider said this week.

Nato is important because it guarantees the security and safety of crucial member states like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – now sitting on the edge of the cauldron of Ukraine. So far, Nato, its councils and officials have said nothing much since the downing of Flight MH17 has made Ukraine’s crisis so much more dangerous.

The terms of security in Europe now need restating in way they haven’t been since the end of the Cold War in 1989. That restatement cannot wait another two months for the planned Nato summit in Cardiff, which is what Nato’s passive leadership seems to want.

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