By Johannes Visser
“I have to step up, stepping down won’t fix anything.” These were the words of Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, fi ve days before resigning as Minister of Defence following a deadly accident during a 2016 military mission in East Africa.
Hennis left her post because of these words as well as the accident itself, in which two Dutch commandos died and another was severely wounded during a United Nations mission in Mali. The minister of Defence was already feeling the heat politically, and the way she carried herself dealing with the outcome hastened the end of her tenure, at the very end of the Rutte-II government.
On September 28th the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) published its investigative conclusions about the incident, in which it laid the blame squarely with the Defence department. In her fi rst public reaction minister Hennis said her job position was her least concern in the whole matter, which according to the Dutch media and opposition politicians gave a strong impression of the exact opposite. During a fi ery debate in the Dutch Parliament one week later, she assumed responsibility for the accident and threw in the towel. The highest Commander of the Armed Forces, Tom Middendorp also resigned.
The OVV investigation had concluded that ‘serious shortcomings’ at the Defence organization had led to the two fatalities and injury in Mali. During a training mission in July last year, a 60-millimetre mortar in safety mode went off prematurely, killing two and maiming a third serviceman. According to the OVV neither the safety of the grenade nor the on-site health care met the required standards. To avoid the incident Defence should have followed its own rules, stated the Safety Board’s report.
After the deadly incident in Mali, the military initially told the soldiers’ relatives that it had been an on-thejob accident. When confronted with the OVV recommendations in an interview, Hennis used technical politico- speak to explain herself, beating around the bush and coming across as dispassionate. Relatives of the perished servicemen reacted with great fury, and the mother of one of the deceased commandos threatened to sue Defence. “This is anything but an industrial incident. It turns out the grenade was in safety mode, but in January they [Defence] said it was a sharp grenade. These boys have been killed. Whoever is responsible will bleed.”
When the public uproar ensued after the Defence minister’s interview she called the relatives to offer her apologies. According to the department she hadn’t called before, because her advisors ‘had told her not to’. The widow of one of the killed servicemen said the apologies were important but did not change her intention to sue. “I want justice. Whoever bought that ammunition and whoever decided not to have the munition tested; they are responsible for the death of my husband.”
According to Defence the incident happened because of the unhappy mix of the pressure-cooker work environment and the can-do mentality of the military in general. Yet it was previously known that the specifi c type of mortar used had technical faults. Bought in 2006 for the military mission in Afghanistan, the 60mm grenade had flaws in its design whereby moist could enter it and, in combination with high temperatures, unstable and shock-sensitive explosive substances gathered in the ignition mechanism. During the shock of the launch these substances would prematurely ignite the main charge of the grenade. The ministry of Defence has stated that it took the 60mm out of service immediately after the incident.
The Netherlands have been participating in the UN mission Minusma in Mali for two years, helping to stabilise the country after different jihadi militant groups had taken over large swaths of the country. It is currently the biggest military operation that Holland is involved in, with approximately 400 service personnel and seven helicopters stationed in Mali. The situation is as of yet unstable, with militant groups regularly attacking UN-patrols. As many as 59 peacekeepers have died since the mission started in 2013.