Parliamentary briefing on the situation in Ukraine

At a public information session, the government briefed the House of Representatives about the crash of flight MH17 in Ukraine. Prime Minister Mark Rutte indicated what steps the government has already taken to deal with the aftermath of the disaster as effectively as possible.

Mr Rutte:

Madam President, thank you. Last Thursday, 17 July 2014, will go down as a dark day in history. Almost 300 passengers, including 193 of our compatriots - backpackers, academics, families and even a member of the States General, Willem Witteveen - boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 at Schiphol Airport, bound for Kuala Lumpur, with no inkling of the terrible fate that was in store for them.

This horrific event has had a deep impact on our country. Our thoughts are with the passengers' families, friends and other loved ones. Over the past few days, expressions of sympathy have been voiced in many places. Almost everyone knows 1 of the victims, or knows someone who did. Right now, there is a strong sense of solidarity in the Netherlands, and this is exceptional.

We are all shocked, bewildered and angry. So many questions still remain. From the moment the government heard the terrible news of the crash, we went into crisis mode, with the aim of answering all these questions as well and as quickly as possible and taking the appropriate action.

Our absolute top priority is repatriating the victims' remains. In addition, direct access to the crash site is necessary for an independent investigation that will leave no stone unturned in establishing exactly what happened. This will ensure that the perpetrators receive their just punishment. At the same time, it is vital that we provide the necessary care to the victims' loved ones here in the Netherlands.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and I have been in almost round-the-clock talks with our international colleagues in order to ensure repatriation and access to the crash site. I have spoken, often on multiple occasions, with the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Malaysia, Ukraine, Australia, Indonesia and Russia, and with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Foreign minister Frans Timmermans is now in New York to urge the members of the UN Security Council to adopt a strong resolution that stresses the importance of both unfettered access for aid workers and an independent, international investigation. Such a resolution would be a powerful instrument to compel the cooperation of all parties concerned.

Last weekend, Mr Timmermans and a group of Dutch experts travelled to Ukraine to discuss the recovery operation and the investigation of the crash and any guilty parties with the Ukrainian authorities and international organisations, including aid organisations. While there, he met with the Ukrainian president, the prime minister, the foreign minister and deputy foreign minister, representatives of the European Union, the UN, the OSCE and the International Red Cross. All the parties he spoke to underscored the importance of direct and unimpeded access to the crash site and the necessity of rapidly repatriating the victims' remains. And of the need for an independent, international investigation. President Poroshenko, whom I spoke to by telephone last night, and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk pledged full cooperation in recovering the victims. The OSCE is negotiating with the separatists, so that these experts can do their work as safely as possible.

This brings me to the matter of recovery and identification. The Dutch identification experts left for the disaster site on 19 July. This will be a complex, time-consuming operation. The Dutch relief workers who are now in Ukraine work for a variety of agencies and organisations, including the Dutch Safety Board, the Public Prosecution Service, the National Forensic Investigation Team (LTFO) and the foreign ministry's crisis management staff. A Dutch expert, the head of the LTFO on site, Gert Wibbelink, will coordinate the international identification operation. The international coordination of the aid efforts is in the hands of the Ukrainian authorities, specifically the Ukrainian government committee charged with investigating the disaster and the State Emergency Service. Malaysia, Germany, the United Kingdom and others have also sent experts to Ukraine. Thanks in part to active efforts on the part of the Netherlands, both the UN Security Council and the OSCE have called for unimpeded and safe access to the crash site and for an independent investigation. The Ukrainian government has appealed to the separatists to cooperate with staff of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service in working to find, gather, store and transport the remains to a place where an investigation can be conducted. Monitoring this work should be the responsibility of OSCE staff. The 1st steps have already been taken to recover the remains of the victims of the disaster. It's dreadful that the recovery of the victims and their belongings is taking so long, on account of the situation on the ground. This is intolerable. At the same time, we have to realise there are major concerns about the attitude of armed groups in the area. The Netherlands is doing everything in its power to bring the victims' remains back here as soon as possible. This is our absolute top priority. We want our people back.

We are seeing some improvements, albeit modest ones, in the situation at the disaster site. I would now like to say a few words about the question of access to the area, the recovery and identification of the remains, and the investigation into the cause of the crash. Let me begin with the matter of access. As the media have now also been reporting, the OSCE has now obtained access to the crash site, though only under certain conditions set by the separatists. The disaster site encompasses approximately 35 square kilometres, and the sheer size of this area also hampers efforts to find remains. I can inform you, and this is news that has just come in this morning, that the Dutch forensic team is now in Torez, where the rail wagons are located, and they are in touch with the OSCE observer missions about access to the disaster site. The 1st goal now is to get the train moving, and into territory controlled by Ukraine, preferably Kharkiv, but in any case to somewhere where Ukraine is in charge. It is important to note that the separatists have said that international observers must be on hand if the train is to depart. The Dutch experts are prepared to fulfil that role, given that they are international experts, embedded with the OSCE. This is the current state of affairs as of 5 to 10 this morning; it's now 20 minutes later, but in any case as of 5 to 10, our focus was on getting the train moving. If that doesn't work, the experts will travel on to the disaster site itself.

I now come to the matter of the recovery and identification of the remains of the victims. It is known that many of the victims have been transferred to the rail wagons that I mentioned, and placed in individual bodybags. The wagons are refrigerated and, as I said, are currently located in Torez, which is 15 kilometres from the site of the disaster. It remains unclear how many of the victims have been placed in the rail wagons and how many have not yet been recovered. According to information obtained from the OSCE yesterday, there are 196 bodies in the train. However, there are unconfirmed reports that 251 bodies have now been placed in the train. The OSCE's figure is based on the count it made yesterday. Further action has been taken since then, so it is of course possible that the number of victims who have been moved to the train is now much higher. However, I would stress that the reported figure of 251 is unconfirmed. Therefore I cannot yet give you any information on the remains of the other victims. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that the bodies of the other victims, and indeed all the victims, are recovered. As I said, it is now crucial that the train departs from its current location and preferably travels to Kharkiv, as the Ukrainian authorities are aiming to ensure. That would be an appropriate location. A Hercules aircraft carrying equipment for the coordination team has now arrived in Kharkiv from the Netherlands, and that's also where all the members of the identification team are. At present I cannot give you an answer as to when the bodies of the Dutch victims can be returned to the Netherlands. We are making every effort to ensure that identification takes place quickly and professionally, according to the highest conceivable standards. And we are endeavouring to ensure that identification can take place in the Netherlands. I discussed this last night with President Poroshenko during the phone call I mentioned. So 1st of all, the train needs to leave the rebel-controlled area and, once it arrives in Ukraine, identification can take place there. Our preferred option is for all the bodies to be transferred to the Netherlands and for us to carry out identification here. Talks on this subject are still ongoing.

Now I would like to turn to the matter of the investigation of the cause of the disaster. We can only conclude that the investigation of the cause has barely been able to commence. So far the separatists are only permitting activities aimed at recovering the bodies. Naturally, that is our 1st priority too. However, it is also the case that the pieces of the wreckage that are relevant to the investigation must be secured as quickly as possible. The location of the black boxes is unknown. If the separatists have possession of them - as unconfirmed reports would suggest - they need to be made available for the investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as soon as possible. I stressed this yesterday when I spoke to the Russian president, and he promised to make efforts on his side to ensure that this happens.

Now I would like to address the matter of establishing what happened and apportioning responsibility. We now have strong indications about what happened. An international, independent investigation of the disaster is essential in order to obtain a clear picture of the facts. I would like to reiterate that we must ensure that prematurely finger-pointing does not cause access to the disaster site to be restricted, thus reducing the chances of recovering the victims' remains, returning them to the Netherlands and carrying out an independent investigation. I understand that many people want us to be clear and to identify the guilty parties as quickly as possible, but I would point out the dilemma involved here. We need to completely exclude the possibility that apportioning responsibility could reduce the chances of recovering the victims and carrying out an independent investigation. An international investigation team, coordinated by the ICAO, will investigate the causes of the disaster. This team will include investigators from the Dutch Safety Board. At the moment we cannot say when the initial report will be available. What matters now, including for the purposes of this investigation, is that safe access to the crash site is ensured. As you can imagine, the issue of contamination of the investigation site poses considerable challenges. I would point out that even if access is secured, past experience has shown that a process like this may take a number of weeks.

Tomorrow the Foreign Affairs Council meets in Brussels. Mr Timmermans will report to the Council on his visit to Ukraine and consult with his counterparts on the appropriate course of action. It is clear to the government - and this applies more generally with respect to developments in Eastern Ukraine - that Russia must use its influence over the separatists to improve the situation on the ground. I made this absolutely clear to the Russian president. And if sufficient access to the disaster site is not granted in the next few days, all political, economic and financial options will be on the table in respect of those directly or indirectly responsible for this. The same will apply if it is confirmed who is responsible for downing flight MH17. Measures will be forthcoming. These will be over and above the steps which the European Council requested be taken on 27 June 2014 and which it concluded on 16 July 2014 had not been adequately taken, ordering work to continue on preparing financial and economic measures.

Finally, Madam President, this afternoon the King and Queen and a number of members of the government, including myself, will attend a closed information meeting for the victims' next of kin. It's important for us to meet them and to hear what they have to say. The government is doing its utmost to ensure that the best possible support is given to all of those who are facing such unbearable grief.

On a personal note, I would like to say to the House that I am glad that we have been offered the opportunity to brief you today. I greatly appreciate the latitude that parliament has granted the government over the past few days. The government intends to report to the House on the outcome of the Foreign Affairs Council by no later than Wednesday morning. Our report will include an update on the latest developments as of Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. The government also intends to provide the House with regular updates on the situation at least every 48 hours.

Madam President, once I have finished speaking I would ask you to give the floor to Ivo Opstelten. He is responsible for national coordination, which includes taking care of the next of kin and all other associated matters. That will then conclude the government's briefing, and we will of course be open to any questions that the House may wish to ask.