Defense Minister survives debate on civilian casualties in Iraq airstrikes

Ank Bijleveld
Ank BijleveldPhoto: Defensie

Minister Ank Bijleveld of Defense barely survived a motion of no confidence on Tuesday during a parliamentary debate on Dutch F-16 involvement in civilian casualties during two airstrikes in Hawija and Mosul in Iraq in 2015. A total of 74 people died in those airstrikes. 

Almost the entire opposition, with the exception of Christian party SGP and Lid Van Haga, supported a motion of no confidence submitted by GroenLinks. "As Kamer we cannot accept that we were informed late, incomplete and incorrectly", GroenLinks parliamentarian Isabelle Diks said when filing the motion.

Bijleveld survived with the support of coalition parties VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie. She offered her "sincere apologies" for the fact that the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, was misinformed about the airstrikes. "As Minister, I am responsible, also for the actions of my predecessor", Bijleveld said. She promised improvement.

According to Bijleveld, she only found out last week Friday that her predecessor, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, misinformed the Kamer about civilian casualties in the two airstrikes in 2015. During the summer of that year Hennis-Plasschaert, now the UN envoy in Iraq, told the Kamer that there had been no civilian casualties in the deployment of Dutch F-16 fighter jets in the fight against terrorist organization Islamic State.

But on Monday, Minister Bijleveld revealed that the Ministry of Defense already knew that mistakes had been made in airstrikes in Mosul and Hawija and that civilians had died in those bombings. In both cases the error was due to incorrect or incomplete information. The Hawija airstrike was on a ammunition factory and destroyed an entire neighborhood. The available information incorrectly said that no one lived around the factory. And the anti-ISIS coalition was surprised by the amount of ammunition in the factory, which caused a massive explosion. 70 people died. The airstrike in Mosul targeted what the anti-ISIS coalition thought was an ISIS headquarters building, but which turned out to be a family home. Four people died. 

Bijleveld said that she was "broadly informed" about civilian casualties when she took office, but was not aware of the details until Friday. She also called it "plausible that the most involved Ministries" were informed of investigations into those airstrikes and the results of these investigations. In addition to Defense, that involves the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Foreign trade and Development Cooperation, Justice and Security, and also Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Ministry of General Affairs.

While the Kamer accepted Bijleveld's apologies, all parties were still critical. GroenLinks MP Isabelle Diks accused the Minister of hiding behind her predecessor. "The Kamer was lied to." SP parliamentarian Sadet Karabulut called it "completely unacceptable" that the Kamer was "incorrectly informed". The parliamentarians called it "miraculous" and "insane" that Bijleveld did not know about this until Friday, as she claims. "If this is the state of the department, then it is much worse than expected", Karabulut said. "Time and time again information has been deliberately withheld. Is this the way in which the Ministry of Defense deals with the Kamer and the Dutch population?"

The coalition parties were also critical. VVD parliamentarian Andre Bosman said that he is very concerned by the lack of a political antenna in Defense. ChristenUnie MP wonders how this mistake was possibly made and called on Bijleveld to investigate what went wrong.