The use of military force is a sensitive issue for the Dutch Greens. Last fall, the Dutch Green Left party GroenLinks conducted a comprehensive open party debate on the subject, an endeavour to further develop the parties’ thought and communication on the subject. A rather daring and progressive project, that became a triumph of party democracy.
Under what conditions can military interventions be supported? – asked the Dutch Green Left party GroenLinks last fall, in a party-wide debate. This is a particularly sensitive subject for GroenLinks, as traditionally its members are highly interested in international issues, and are torn between compassion and a sense of duty towards people in conflict areas, and a deep distrust of violence as a means to solve problems. This is, in part, due to the origins of the party. GroenLinks was founded in 1989 as a merger of four parties, which brought together green, socialist, evangelical, and pacifist principles. Since its founding, the party has been very critical about the use of military violence and the platforms whose primary task is to organise coalitions for such events, notably the NATO. However, the party has never taken a fully pacifist position, and wasn’t rejecting all military interventions. Thus, for many years it has struggled with decision making about the use of military force.
This indecision led to a crisis in the party in 2011, when Dutch green MPs supported a plan to send troops to develop and protect a police training mission in Kunduz, Afghanistan (only one green MP – Ineke van Gent – voted against the mission). Their support was decisive in letting this plan of a very unpopular and controversial government pass in parliament. Many members were highly critical of the possible support for the mission, yet the relatively new party leader Jolande Sap committed herself to supporting it.
The following election resulted in a huge defeat with the party losing six of its ten seats in parliament. Not long afterwards, the party leader and party board both resigned and a process of soul-searching began in the party.
The ‘Open Party Debate’
In order to successfully manage the crisis inside the party, an inquiry committee was established, that carried out a thorough investigation. Among other things, the committee recommended searching for new and better methods to develop the party’s internal democracy. Logically – but also daringly – Bram van Ojik, the new party leader, suggested military intervention as the first topic to debate with the green party members during this pilot initiative that came to be known as the ‘open party debate’ method. The pilot was considered fairly progressive, also among other Dutch parties, since Dutch political parties – like many others in Europe – often shy away from true internal debates on controversial topics.
The so called ‘party talks’ started in September 2014 and continued until November. The kick-off to the debate was provided by an initial debate document, which was developed by the party board and the green party think tank (Bureau de Helling) that brought into focus the central topics up for discussion. The forum for members to meet was provided by the green party county committees that organised nine meetings throughout the country. Green MPs and senators were invited and were explicitly instructed to focus on listening and discussing with members, and not on delivering a speech. The meetings were complemented by an online debate and a poll, in which members were asked whether they found the dilemmas outlined in the initial debate document important enough to be included in the MPs’ decision-making process, and how they weighted the dilemma compared to other issues. The results were used to compose a final document that was put to a vote among all party members in a referendum.
With a voter turn-out of 24.9 % , and 86.7 % of the votes in favour of the document, the referendum was considered a success by the party board. The final document is an assessment framework, that is meant to support the Dutch green MPs to examine future political initiatives concerning military intervention for consistency with party thought on the issue. It comprises five main points: protection of civilians against violence; legitimacy in international law; integration in a broader plan of diplomacy, humanitarian aid and reconstruction; long-term commitment; and finally, demonstrated insufficiency of non-violent options. In addition, the MPs in cooperation with the party board set out guidelines on how discussions with members should be held on the application of this assessment in concrete cases of military intervention.
Many members were convinced that the use of military force can only be considered when it is part of a bigger strategy including prevention of, and reconstruction after, violence.
“Diplomacy, Defence and Development”
Some topics and considerations were frequently mentioned during the party talks. First and foremost, many members were convinced that the use of military force can only be considered when it is part of a bigger strategy including prevention of, and reconstruction after, violence. And even in this case they would need to act in accordance with the so-called 3-D approach of diplomacy, defence and development. This matches the green party members’ desires to tackle the structural causes of conflict. In this respect, on several occasions the importance of the geopolitics of energy (specifically oil) was mentioned. Otherwise, the ecological/environmental effects of military intervention did not play a very prominent role.
During the party talks, it became apparent that the conviction that conflicts can and should only be solved by peaceful means alone was a ‘view held by a small but passionate minority’ within the green party. ‘Pacifist’ members contributed heavily during the meetings and to the online debate. Yet, in the members’ poll, only 14% of respondents said to reject any support of the use of violence, and in the referendum a more or less equal number of members rejected the final document, although of course this could also be for other reasons. The party talks showed the importance of making a real effort to include these and other minority views in the parties’ deliberation processes. Not only because taking minority views into account is part of the green party’s roots, but also because these minorities help to ensure that the party is forced to make deliberate decisions on the use of military force. This consideration is what members and voters felt was missing during the party crisis of 2011.
Probably the other biggest minority view is held by advocates of a compulsory UN Security Council mandate, as a precondition for military intervention. The poll showed 36% of members in favour of this criteria. The subject was heavily debated during the county meetings, with proponents warning that the perils of self-righteousness, revenge and self-interest increase when international law is disregarded. Opponents of this criteria were concerned that the abuse of veto-power in the Security Council would lead to deadlocks preventing the opportunity to protect civilians against gross human rights violations. Experts were consulted and a provisional compromise was reached in the referendum document. The possibility of an exception to a Security Council mandate was added to the criteria with an asterisk, which could be seen as a symbol of it being an issue that is on the members’ radar, but requiring institutional change within the Security Council and international law, more than it needs members agreeing on it. After all, more than 86% of members voted in favour of the text with the asterisk.
It is an illusion to think that these party talks settled the Dutch green party’s opinion about ‘just war’. On the contrary, it showed the importance of continuing the dialogue with members every time these criteria are used by green MPs to decide whether to support or oppose a military mission. This is demonstrated in the title of the collected contributions of the debate, that Bureau the Helling published in January 2015: ‘Vrede, daar blijf je aan werken’ (‘Peace, a continuous work in progress’).
In the members’ poll, only 14% of respondents said to reject any support of the use of violence.
So what work lies ahead for the Dutch green party? On the issue of military force, some of the external experts that contributed to the party talks – like military historian Dr. Christ Klep – suggested that maybe the party should reconsider and elaborate its vision for the Dutch army in the twenty-first century next. Party leader Van Ojik – a former diplomat himself – similarly expressed an interest in further developing Dutch green party thinking on contemporary security issues, such as drones and conflicts caused by climate change.
No Need for Shady Evidence
Another important issue which came to light during the party talks was the importance of obtaining reliable information on conflicts as a basis for MPs’ decision-making. They emphasised the need to avoid the kind of ‘shady evidence’ that was put forward to justify the start of the Iraq War (2003-2011). This case, but also more recent examples like the conflict in Ukraine prove that framing is complicating the gathering of reliable information: for example, nationalists and rebels both often use social media to claim and denounce attacks making it hard to know who to blame and how to protect civilians. Since the political challenges concerning armed conflict – whether it be prevention and resolution, or actual military intervention – are highly transnational in many aspects, it would be a good idea for the Dutch green party to seek collaboration on these topics with its sister parties in other countries.
Moreover, since many green parties in Europe advocate more European military collaboration, it would only be logical to expand the knowledge of fellow green parties’ dealings with these issues, and start a dialogue amongst Greens all over Europe on these issues. Right now, the knowledge of each other’s national challenges and involvements in the subject sometimes seems haphazard, or at least limited. This also became apparent during the party talks. Hardly any members mentioned fellow green parties, whilst many more emphasised the importance of European collaboration. On the practical level, this could be tackled by establishing a standing working group on peace and security under the European Green Party where the international secretaries of member parties can meet to exchange viewpoints, experiences, knowledge and best-practices.
Although it is a challenge to democratically develop common views on a European level among Greens on this sensitive subject, the possibility of expanding knowledge and relevant actions is too important to pass up. By bringing together knowledge and peacebuilding initiatives, we might be able to shift the debate in national parliaments from escalated conflict situations and possible military actions, to early warning and conflict prevention mechanisms.