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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

ANC's just war - Human Rights Watch letter

HRW - Letter to Deputy President of South Africa

March 5, 1999

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki

Republic of South Africa

Dear Deputy President Mbeki:

Human Rights Watch would like to express its disappointment with your recent comments to parliament on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which challenged the TRC's finding that the ANC committed gross violations of human rights during the liberation struggle. Human Rights Watch believes that, contrary to the argument of your speech, national unity and reconciliation in South Africa can only be based on an acknowledgment by all parties to the conflicts of the past, including those who were fighting to overthrow an unjust regime, that the end does not justify the means. Only if the findings of the TRC are seen to be evenhanded, and only if the ANC acknowledges its responsibility for its own abuses, can those who supported the previous government be expected to accept the overall conclusion of the TRC that the previous government was responsible for the vast majority of violations and that reparations are owed.

Human Rights Watch does not believe that the justness of the ANC's struggle against apartheid, often referred to internationally as a "just war," can provide the basis for excusing abuses committed during this struggle. Most parties to an armed conflict believe their cause to be just, and it is the purpose of international humanitarian law to ensure that parties abide by the most basic standards of humanity regardless of the ideological underpinnings of their cause.

In general, the ANC is to be commended for the principled manner in which it conducted itself during the period of armed struggle. The ANC's own investigations into human rights abuses committed by its forces, in the form of the Skweyiya and Motsuenyane Commissions, demonstrate its willingness to investigate and address human rights abuses. As the TRC's final report makes clear, the ANC adhered to a general policy of avoiding unnecessary loss of human life, and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) took action to end the use of landmines when it became clear that civilians had become their primary victims. The ANC's 1980 decision to abide by the Geneva Conventions and Protocol I was the first such decision to be taken by a liberation movement.

Nonetheless, serious human rights abuses were committed by the ANC and MK during the struggle against apartheid. Among these serious human rights abuses were the taking of civilian hostages during the January 1980 Silverton bank siege; the indiscriminate bombings of Magoo's bar in Durban, the Sanlam Center in Amanzimtoti, the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court, the Newcastle Magistrates' Court, the Krugersdorp Magistrates' Court, Ellis Park Stadium, and Church Street in Pretoria, among others; the indiscriminate use of landmines in the Transvaal area (discontinued in 1987); the summary executions of suspected collaborators such as Benjamin Langa; and the torture and abusive detention of ANC cadres suspected of spying at Quatro camp (which were also documented by the Motsuenyane Commission). The ANC has itself provided a list to the TRC of its members who died "as a result of excessively harsh treatment after committing breaches of discipline," and "agents executed on orders of tribunals," most of which must be considered prima facie cases of gross human rights abuses.

Recognizing that such abuses took place, and that they did amount to gross human rights abuses, does not amount to an effort "to besmirch our [the ANC's] struggle by denouncing it as a gross violation of human rights," as suggested by the ANC's October 1998 submission in response to the findings of the TRC. The human rights abuses that are documented in the TRC's Final Report are not "in fact inseparable from the consequences of legitimate struggle," as argued in the ANC's response. Most of these abuses were violations of the laws of war, which prohibit targeted attacks on civilian targets, indiscriminate attacks which may cause disproportional loss of civilian life, as well as torture and summary executions. The TRC's application of these specific rules do not amount, as suggested in your speech to parliament, to "a general implication that any and all military activity which results in civilian lives constitutes a gross violation of human rights." The ANC is correct in asserting that the limited number of abuses which occurred during the long period of its armed struggle is a testament to its commitment to the laws of war, in particular the immunity of civilians from attack. However, serious abuses and violations did occur, and the ANC is morally, legally, and politically responsible for these abuses. Human Rights Watch urges the ANC's leadership, as well as the persons who were responsible for these particular abuses, to take responsibility for them.

Human Rights Watch also wishes to express its concerns about the suggestion in your speech that the government is considering the grant of additional amnesties to former SADF generals and those involved in political violence in KwaZulu-Natal who did not apply for amnesty to the TRC. Human Rights Watch welcomes your rejection of the idea of a general amnesty for crimes committed during the apartheid period. However, Human Rights Watch feels that all persons who committed political crimes during the apartheid period had an adequate opportunity to seek amnesty from the TRC, and that those who did not apply for amnesty should not benefit from their silence during the amnesty period.

Additional amnesties would undermine the important historical compromise which was made in 1994, granting a limited amnesty to perpetrators in return for their contribution to a search for the truth about the past. While we agree that South Africa should not allow itself "to be drawn into a situation of conflict as a result of the political crimes of the past," South Africa should also not grant further amnesty for human rights abuses because of threats of violence made by those who did not approach the amnesty committee during the envisioned time frame. Repeated amnesties will reinforce the culture of impunity which is one of the most serious obstacles to achieving an end to violence today. Human Rights Watch calls upon the South African government not to issue any amnesties beyond those granted by the TRC and to take steps to prosecute both those named in the TRC's report as responsible for gross human rights violations and others for whom there is sufficient evidence to support charges.

South Africa's democratic transition and the work of the TRC in investigating the past has amazed and inspired many across the world. We hope that the ANC will not undermine these achievements by attempting to avoid responsibility for gross human rights abuses committed by its armed wing. The ANC should build on South Africa's democratic transition and the achievements of the TRC by taking responsibility for the limited, but nonetheless serious, human rights abuses committed during that struggle.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your reply.


Peter Takirambudde


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