THE HAGUE: The Netherlands on Saturday paid its last respects to former prime minister Wim Kok, much admired for his inclusive style of politics, but who was forced to resign in 2002 over the Srebrenica massacre.
Dutch flags flew at half-mast across the country as Kok, who died last Saturday aged 80, was laid to rest at a private ceremony followed by a memorial service in Amsterdam, attended by hundreds of invited guests.
“Wim Kok was a driven champion for the cause of the everyday man. A prime minister for everybody in the Netherlands,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at the service.
“His biggest asset was the ability to view a problem from all sides. He was the man of sensible compromise,” Rutte said at the service.
Born into a humble background — his father was a carpenter — Kok rose through the ranks of the Dutch labour union movement and eventually became the first leader of the umbrella FNV labour federation in 1976.
Kok was elected prime minister in 1994 and his first cabinet was a mix of his left-leaning Labour Party, the rightist, business-friendly VVD party and the progressive Democrats 66.
Bringing together diverse viewpoints, Kok’s government pulled the Netherlands from a deep recession — to the admiration of many of his peers including then US president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair.
It was during Kok’s second tenure from 1998-2002 that the progressive Netherlands became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage and euthanasia.
“Wim Kok was a giant who carried everyone on his shoulders,” Labour Party leader Lodewijk Asscher told mourners.
Earlier this week Clinton said Kok’s leadership “was an example of how to effectively solve problems in the world today.”
But the 1995 Srebrenica massacre which happened during Kok’s first government eventually led to his resignation seven years later.
Dutch soldiers on a United Nations mission to protect the “safe area” of Srebrenica during Bosnia’s bloody civil war were overrun by Bosnian Serb troops in June 1995.
What followed was the slaughter of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the worst bloodshed on European soil since the Second World War.
In 2002, the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies issued a scathing report over the incident. Kok took responsibility by resigning — followed by his entire cabinet.
He never returned to active politics, but worked as a lobbyist for the European Union as well as serving on the boards of many big Dutch companies and organisations such as ING bank, the KLM national carrier, Shell and the Anne Frank Foundation.
Speaking shortly before his death, Kok admitted he still lived in Srebrenica’s shadow.
“It’s a book that will never close. For some it’s probably much harder than for me. But it’s hard for me too,” he said.