Van Mierlo threatened a cabinet crisis over Bouterse

Due to a lack of support from fellow ministers and too much criticism from the Lower House of his approach to the Surinamese drug suspect Desi Bouterse, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans van Mierlo threatened in 1997 to bring down the Kok I cabinet.

This is evident from the minutes of the Council of Ministers of 25 years ago, published by the National Archives this week. On August 26, 1997, Van Mierlo – deputy prime minister on behalf of D66 in Purple I with VVD and PvdA – said that he could “no longer function as Minister of Foreign Affairs” if parliament ruled that he “made the wrong decision”.

Then came the cabinet crisis NRC Handelsblad on August 21, 1997, Van Mierlo personally prevented the authorities in Brazil from being asked to arrest Bouterse, who was visiting Suriname’s neighboring country, at the last minute. Bouterse has been under criminal investigation for years in the Netherlands for large-scale cocaine trafficking. Justice had also signaled him internationally as a suspect because his arrest was wanted. To the dismay of the police and the Public Prosecution Service, Van Mierlo refused to agree to the request of his Justice colleague and fellow party member, Winnie Sorgdrager, to ask Brazil to arrest Bouterse.

Van Mierlo stated that he did not want to make the request to have Bouterse arrested to Brazil because he feared that this country would not have been prepared to arrest Bouterse. That would have resulted in “prestige gains and freedom of movement” for Bouterse, according to Van Mierlo in the minutes.

Criticism of Zalm and Pronk

That explanation of the D66 foreman does not convince his colleagues at all. Minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm (VVD) asks “with a view to the separation between politics and justice” whether Van Mierlo has not “moved too much” in Brazil. The ‘legal process is the competence of Minister Sorgdrager’. Is it more common for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to interfere with this, Zalm also wants to know. Jan Pronk (PvdA, Development Cooperation) is also critical. If you decide to report a suspect internationally, you must continue to do so. “The consequences that a request for arrest will have should be left to the country concerned and not be drawn by Dutch government officials.” Ad Melkert (Social Affairs, PvdA) also advocates consistent action. According to Melkert, “the Bouterse file has long been cursed”.

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Van Mierlo did not accept the criticism. He says he only acted “in the interest of justice”, “not in the interest of foreign policy”. He also wants to help decide on requests for Bouterse’s arrest in a future case. If he “cannot count on the support of the cabinet, a problematic situation will arise for him”. Van Mierlo also complains that leaking information damages his “image”.

In the Council of Ministers, after long deliberation, the folds between the ministers are ironed out with the agreement that “the cabinet intends to continue the prosecution of Mr Bouterse with determination,” according to the minutes. This approach also leaves room for a marginal role for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Then only the coalition party VVD, read Member of Parliament Frans Weisglas, must be forced to back down. Weisglas thought that Van Mierlo acted incorrectly. He believed that the ministers should have “played it safe” and asked Brazil for arrest and extradition. “Then Bouterse would probably have been in a Brazilian cell by now.” VVD party chairman Frits Bolkestein will “nuance” Weisglas. The VVD says that “the cabinet acted reasonably” by not requesting an arrest. Van Mierlo no longer feels “humiliated”. Bouterse will never be arrested again after that. In absentia, he is sentenced in the Netherlands to eleven years in prison for cocaine trafficking.