No wonder capitalist societies are coming apart at the seams. Trust is supposed to be the bond that holds a society together, and trust is based on truth. But so often have government leaders asserted their “right” to lie, to manage the news, and to contrive to deceive the public that large numbers of people in the West no longer believe much of what their governments say about anything. There has of course always been some degree of scepticism about politics and politicians — but that was something quite different from today’s automatic perception that they are all liars and cheats. Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction are just some of the historical milestones along the path to disillusionment. There are many others, already buried and forgotten. People tend to forget that the present derives from the past and the future from both. The officially encouraged public attitude seems to be that, if the past is another country, let’s declare independence from it.
The end result is that some people nowadays don’t even care if public officials lie to them. Others seem to expect it. This is no mere healthy questioning of those in authority. It reflects a destructive phenomenon of the times: mass cynicism and a sense that we are powerless victims at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. Yet, there is no reason to believe that the process of human progress has come to an end or that it ever will. There will always be people who stand up for justice and resist the scourge of an age turned apathetic.
A leftward tilt in Latin American politics, for example, has meant that socialist governments throughout the region have recently started digging up the past and prosecuting human rights violations that occurred, in some cases, decades ago.1 These were of course all countries where for decades the United States propped up right-wing dictatorships, conducted covert operations, and helped train “anti-terrorist” death squads.
Chile, for instance, has offered reparations to torture victims and forced the army to apologize for its human rights violations — “[e]l Ejército de Chile tomó la dura, pero irreversible decisión de asumir las responsabilidades que como institución le cabe en todos los hechos punibles y moralmente inaceptables del pasado” (“[t]he Army of Chile made the hard but irreversible decision to assume its institutional responsibilities for all the punishable and morally unacceptable acts of the past”) in the words of General Juan Emilio Cheyre — while the Supreme Court in Argentina has declared unconstitutional the hastily enacted amnesty laws of 1986 and 1987. In Uruguay, a leftist government, led by Tabaré Vázquez, has taken power and a former president, Juan María Bordaberry, has been indicted for the 1976 murders of two political leaders and two suspected members of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. And in Peru, military, intelligence and police officials involved in abuses during the authoritarian rule of Alberto K. Fujimori in the 1990s are also facing charges. In Bolivia, newly elected socialist president Evo Morales wasted no time in expelling 28 right-wing generals from the police, army, navy, and air force after a government-appointed commission denounced high-command complicity in a US covert operation to demolish Bolivia’s anti-aircraft defenses.
In Cambodia, meanwhile, 27 years after the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot was driven from power, some of its top figures are expected to soon be put on trial for causing the deaths of nearly one fourth of the Cambodian population. Britain and America, which for years have done their utmost to forget their past support for the Khmer Rouge, may now have to confront events they once thought were safely buried.
Much the same might also apply to former senior officers of the apartheid South African military establishment who were either acquitted or granted generous amnesties after the country’s transition to democratic rule in 1994. Former defense minister General Magnus Malan, for example, was absolved of any criminal offence committed during South African counter-insurgency operations that took place in the 1980s. A South African Supreme Court judge ruled in 1996 that, in the context of those operations, “offensive” actually meant “protective.” It was a post-apartheid measure of the extent to which words had become denuded of significance, to mean the very opposite of what they were supposed to convey.
Brigadier Wouter Basson, formerly in charge of the South African Army’s chemical and biological warfare program, was another leading military figure who got away with murder during the apartheid years. Basson was allegedly involved in the murders of more than 200 South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) prisoners of war. According to eyewitness evidence presented at the South African Truth Commission, the prisoners were injected with muscle relaxants before their bodies were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean from an aircraft. Basson also allegedly conspired to contaminate the water supply of a SWAPO refugee camp with cholera. However, in a classic case of legal bungling, if not an outright travesty of justice, the court ruled in 1999 that it had no jurisdiction over crimes committed in South West Africa (or Namibia as it is now named). All the remaining charges against Basson were dismissed in 2002. The Supreme Court overturned the decision in 2005 on the basis that South West Africa was in fact a South African colony during the apartheid era, illegally occupied and administered by the former South African regime. But then the Directorate of Public Prosecutions decided not to reopen the case against Basson because of the legal principle of double jeopardy.
However, a number of secret mass graves were discovered last year near several former South African Army bases in Namibia. The graves are believed to contain the remains of hundreds of SWAPO guerrilla prisoners of war, who were secretly executed by South African police and military intelligence units. Extensive forensic tests on the exhumed remains are currently underway. Depending on their results, Malan, Basson, and their cohort may well find themselves in the dock yet again, to confront the events they thought they had left behind. For them, as for other alleged war criminals around the Third World who thought they could get away with their deeds, the past might no longer be another country from which they can claim independence.
1 In Mexico (which has yet to join the leftward movement of many nations to its south), too, a special prosecutor has charged one of its former presidents, Luis Echeverría, with genocide for his role in the 2 October 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre on 2 October 1968 and the 10 June 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre. But both cases have been dismissed due to the statute of limitation.
South African journalist Stan Winer is author of the book Between the Lies: Rise of the Media-Military-Industrial Complex (London: Southern Universities Press, 2004). Buy this book from www.amazon.co.uk or download it free of charge at www.coldtype.net.