HUMAN rights organizations in South Africa and abroad are backing the call on Aug. 30 by the African National Congress (ANC) for a ``truth commission'' to document the existence of human rights abuses under apartheid. Such a commission, comprised of a government-appointed panel of judges, would investigate human rights abuses committed by agents of the state acting under political orders.
But the organizations are also criticizing the ANC for failing to implement the recommendations of its own commission that those responsible for rights abuses in its detention centers in exile be disciplined, and that victims be compensated.
``We support the call for a truth and reconciliation commission, and we hope that one is established,'' says Brian Currin, director of Lawyers for Human Rights, a leading human rights lobby group. ``But such a commission would look primarily at human rights violations by agents of the state and may not even have jurisdiction over human rights violations which took place outside the country,'' he says.
Over the last few weeks, the inquest into the death in 1985 of anti-apartheid activist Matthew Goniwe, and three of his colleagues, has highlighted the position of state agents who committed crimes in the pursuit of state policies. Col. Lourens du Plessis, a retired officer of the South African Defence Force (SADF), granted indemnity from prosecution, testified that an order calling for the ``permanent removal from society'' of Goniwe and two others was, in fact, an instruction for their assassinations.
The message was sent by Gen. Christoffel van der Westhuizen, head of the Department of Military Intelligence, who was then a brigadier in charge of the Eastern Cape command. He testified at the inquest last week and refused to answer questions about the order to avoid self-incrimination.
Colonel du Plessis also released a top-secret SADF document at the hearing that indicated that a former SADF chief, Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys, argued that the elimination of enemies of the state by a shadowy state agency did not amount to murder.
IN October last year, President Frederik de Klerk pushed through a bill providing indemnity from prosecution for state employees as a result of past actions. The bill was opposed by opposition parties within and outside Parliament.
In bilateral discussions with the ANC last year, then-Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee, who now is also defense minister, repeatedly tried to strike an amnesty deal with ANC officials to absolve both ANC and government perpetrators of human rights abuses. The ANC resisted the deal and said the question of amnesty could be decided only by an interim government. The government responded to the ANC's call for a truth commission by calling for a deal whereby both sides be granted indemnity.
Mr. Coetsee said on Aug. 31 that state employees should be granted indemnity when they believed they had been ``fighting a just war against terrorists.'' He said he would consider refusing to extradite ANC officials to countries where they had allegedly committed crimes in detention camps.
``If I was asked to consider extradition, my attitude would be that the time has come now to clear the slate finally and close the book on the past,'' Coetsee said.
But human rights groups insist it is imperative for future reconciliation in a democratic South Africa that the truth about the past be documented.
``For the ANC's own credibility, it should act on the recommendations of its own internal inquiry,'' says Abdullahi An-Naim, director of Africa Watch, a division of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch. He says the establishment of a truth commission to probe all human rights abuses could enhance reconciliation.
Critics have accused the ANC of calling for a truth commission while being fully aware that the government will not grant such a request, and that offenders in their own ranks will get off the hook. ``The ANC's substitution of pious words for decisive action [against its own offenders] is cynical in the extreme,'' says Tony Leon, the Democratic Party justice spokesman.