Namibia turns to world for answers on missing soldiers
Relatives of 'disappeared' fighters hope the International Criminal Court will investigate.
(Page 2 of 2)
Hendricks's is not a unique story. In the 1970s and '80s, human rights groups report, thousands of SWAPO fighters vanished. After 1990, when the country elected SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma as president and instituted a democratic constitution, family members of these soldiers pushed the government to investigate what happened in Angola. In 1991, Namibia invited the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate the situation – a process critics said was inadequate and undermined by the government.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The debate continued throughout the 1990s, as did a call for Namibia to hold a truth and reconciliation process. SWAPO leaders rejected the idea, saying they had already implemented reconciliation policies and that a commission would hurt stability. Henning Melber, a SWAPO member who now heads the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation and has written extensively about Namibia, says part of this resistance came from SWAPO leaders' awareness that they could be implicated in human rights violations.
Then, in 2002, the world's first permanent international court opened its doors. The ICC's mission is to provide justice when national judiciaries are unable or unwilling to do so. Local human rights groups saw another chance. In 2006, Namibia's National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) asked the ICC to investigate whether Mr. Nujoma and three other officials were connected to soldiers' disappearances.
"We didn't go to the court to ask them to prosecute," says Phil ya Nangolo, NSHR's director. "We want them to investigate it. These issues have remained unresolved for too long."
There wasn't much reaction to the move until months later, at which point SWAPO members began calling Mr. ya Nangolo's group treasonous. He and his colleagues received death threats.
Few experts expect the case to go far. The ICC is meant to try cases of genocide, war crimes, and other offenses against humanity that occurred or continued after 2002. Prosecutors have received hundreds of requests to investigate. So far they have confirmed only a handful of cases against warlords in conflict areas.
In Namibia, where political debate is regularly quieted by the government, the ICC application has been all over radio talk shows and newspapers for months. It also seems to have rekindled the debate over having some sort of truth commission. One recent newspaper poll showed that almost 80 percent of Namibians surveyed thought a truth and reconciliation process would help the country.
"It sounds as if it is very unlikely that the ICC would accept that submission.... But it has had a huge impact on the public discourse in Namibia," says Mr. Melber. "It is alerting the electorate that there is unfinished business."