Due day for Defense Minister

Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Commander Tom Middendorp visit Dutch soldiers on NATO mission in Lithuania, 10 Apr 2017
Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Commander Tom Middendorp visit Dutch soldiers on NATO mission in Lithuania, 10 Apr 2017Photo: Ministry of Defense

Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert of Defense will face the hardest parliamentary debate of her career on Tuesday afternoon. The Tweede Kamer will debate with her the conclusions of the Dutch Safety Board's investigation into a mortar grenade exploding during training in Mali last year, killing two Dutch soldiers. With parliamentarians being almost unanamously critical, the question is not only whether Hennis will survive this debate as Defense Minister, but also whether she will still have a position in the new Dutch government.

Soldiers Henry Hoving and Kevin Roggeveld, deployed to a UN mission in Mali, were killed when a 60 mm mortar grenade exploded during training in July last year. A third Dutch soldier sustained serious injuries. Last week Thursday, the Dutch Safety Board published a report on its investigation into this fatal incident. The Safety Board concluded that Defense "falls seriously short" in ensuring the safety of Dutch soldiers deployed to the Mali mission - both the safety of the grenades and the medical care available to soldiers were not in order. Defense puts the interest of participatin in international missions above the safety of Dutch soldiers, according to the report. 

On Monday, the Safety Board explained its report to the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament. All parties except the PvdD, DENK and FvD were present, according to newspaper AD. The entire official and political  top of Defense is responsible for mistakes made around the fatal mortar grenade accident, Safety Board vice president Erwin Muller concluded in the Kamer on Monday. 

Hennis already knew about the damaging conclusions in the report when it was published on Thursday. A draft version of the report was delivered to the Ministry of Defense on June 26th already, the Safety Board revealed on Monday. And on Wednesday, the day before the report was published, the final version was sent to Defense. Despite this, Hennis only decided to pause all missions and inspect the amunition on Friday - a day after the report was published. Her comments immediately after the report was released, are also considered unwise by many.

Immediately after the report was made public, a statement was released on the Defense Ministry's website in which Hennis said that the safety of soldiers is "paramount to everyone". Speaking to NOS and RTL Nieuws later on Thursday, she insisted that she does not want to step down, but act. RTL published unedited footage of their interview with the Minister, showing that she could not answer a simple question. The image was portrayed that she choked on her words because she was trying to protect the Defense organization. But according to AD, what actually came across was that she chocked because she was looking for a way to protect her own political career.

On Friday the tone changed, when relatives of the two killed soldiers announced they are filing a lawsuit agaist Defense. "Defense is 100 percent responsible for the death of my son." the mother of one soldier said. The father of the other called it "death by negligence". They also criticized the Minister for not making contact with them. At the very least, they'd like an apology.

Hennis made contact with the relatives later on Friday, according to NU.nl. But whether this is enough for Hennis to stay Minister of Defense is uncertain. Current Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA) said that Hennis must draw her own conclusions, but added that he finds the conclusions of the report serious enough for a resignation, according to NU.nl. Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders, who is partly responsible for the decision to deploy soldiers to international missions, made clear that he agreed to the Mali mission "on military advice", according to newspaper AD.

All eyes will be on the CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie - the three parties currently negotiating with the VVD on forming a new government - during the debate on Tuesday afternoon. Will they be willing to spare Hennis? Because this debate does not only hold consequences for the last bit of Hennis' term as Defense Minister, but also for her future in the Rutte III cabinet. The formation process is in the final phase, and with a little luck, the expectation is that there will be a new government in two weeks' time, according to NU.nl.

Before the Safety Board released its report, Hennis was seen as a potential successor for party leader and Prime Minister Mark Rutte. She was also marked as the next faction leader for the VVD in the Tweede Kamer. Hennis herself made no secret that she would like to be in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the next government. The question is whether the VVD, which is struggling with the image of a ruling party, will give her a second chance - and whether the other three parties in the formation are willing to present a new government, which will immediately cause controversy over Hennis' new Minister position. 


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