At the conclusion of a recent interview on Radio 702 dealing with other matters AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel was challenged by Eusebius McKaiser as to whether he believed apartheid was a ‘crime against humanity.’ Kriel’s reply was that while he believed apartheid was wrong, and an infringement of the dignity of black people, he did not believe that it qualified for this designation, as this would be to place it on the same level as the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis, and the mass murders committed by various Communist regimes through history.
For these comments Kriel was widely denounced in South Africa’s press. The argument made by many of our leading intellectuals and human rights figures in response was not a substantive one, setting out the peculiar evil of racial discrimination (let alone dispossession) when directed by the state against politically powerless racial or ethnic groups. Rather an appeal was made to a particular authority. As Professor Pierre de Vos put it in the Daily Maverick Kriel’s denial was “factually wrong” on the basis that back in November 1973 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. This was a point also made on social media by other South African human rights activists both here and abroad.
To give the UN General Assembly of 1973 the definitive say over this important and fraught question is however not unproblematic for a number of reasons.
Up until the early 1970s the definition of “crimes against humanity” was that contained in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal which had tried Nazi war criminals after World War Two. This referred to “'Crimes against humanity. - ' namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”
However in October 1971 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Guinea introduced a draft of the convention extending the definition of crimes against humanity to include “apartheid”, the rigid form of racial segregation that applied in the Republic of South Africa at the time. In terms of the historical chronology this was before the Soweto uprising of 1976, the South African Military Intelligence sponsorship of Renamo in Mozambique and Unita in Angola (late 1970s, and 1980s) as part of its destabilisation strategy, and the horrific spiral of state, revolutionary, and counter-revolutionary violence that took hold within South Africa from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
The USSR was not itself unfamiliar with the perpetration of ‘crimes against humanity’, according to the narrow Nürnberg definition. To give just one small example: In mid-September 1939 the Red Army invaded and conquered the eastern part of Poland in terms of the carve-up of that country agreed to with Nazi Germany. The Poles were under orders not to put up resistance but nonetheless a few hundred thousand Polish officers, soldiers and policemen were interned by the Soviets. Hundreds of thousands of Poles would be deported to the east, while a core of around 40 000 Polish officers and intellectuals were kept as prisoners of war and interrogated by the NKVD to determine their attitude to Soviet authority.
On 5 March 1940 the Soviet Politburo, chaired by Joseph Stalin, approved an NKVD order condemning 21,857 of these prisoners to "the supreme penalty: shooting" for being "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority." As David Remnick later noted these young officers were killed as they “had been among the best-educated men in Poland, and Stalin saw them as a potential danger, as enemies-in-advance.”
About 7 000 of these prisoners were personally dealt with by the NKVD’s chief executioner Vasily Mikhailovich Blokhin. Blokhin’s initial target for his team was 300 individuals a night, but this was found to be too over-ambitious, and so he settled for 250. For his work Blokhin wore a brown leather hat, brown leather apron, and long brown leather gloves reaching above the elbows. He used German made Walter 2 type revolvers, as the inferior quality Soviet weapons were liable to overheating. A witness later recalled what was then done: “They took the Poles along the corridor one by one, turned left, and took them into the Red Corner, the rest room for prisons staff. Each man was asked his surname, first name, and place of birth- just enough to identify him. Then he was taken to the room next door, which was soundproofed, and shot in the back of the head” by Blokhin. The dead body was then carted out of the far door of the execution room and the next living person brought in. The bodies were loaded onto trucks and taken to mass graves where they were dumped and then buried.
As one of the victors in World War Two Stalin did not have to account for such crimes. And, indeed, for five decades the Soviet Union simply denied any responsibility for these mass killings, which they blamed on Nazi Germany. It was only in the early 1990s, as Communist rule in the USSR was collapsing, that the truth was finally acknowledged.
The other sponsor of the convention, Guinea, was a repressive racial-nationalist-Marxist-Leninist Soviet client state ruled by Ahmed Sékou Touré. After an abortive invasion in November 1970 of Guinea’s capital Conakry by Portuguese forces based in neighbouring Portuguese Guinea, which was combined with a failed coup attempt, Touré set about rounding up any suspected opponents (not already in jail) in the notorious Camp Boiro prison, where they were starved and tortured into making bizarre confessions.
In January 1971 the New York Times reported that five people - four of whom were senior government officials some of whom had been in prison for months before the invasion - had been publicly hanged from a bridge in the capital and their bodies left there for the day. Radio Conakry described this spectacle as “a carnival,” and said, “the people spat on those hanged and stoned their bodies.” A New York Times report datelined 14 October 1971 wrote of how the still ongoing “anti-imperialist” purge by Toure’s regime was sending waves of terror through the country. More than 250 persons had been charged for plotting against the government and put before a special “people's trial” in July. Among the accused were the “highest‐ranking officers of the army, 17 Cabinet‐level officials, governors from 13 of the country's 29 regions, several ambassadors and scores of businessmen and prominent civil servants.” They were all accused of conspiring with West Germany, of all countries. The report stated:
“So far the people's trial has consisted only of long and detailed confessions, taped by prisoners and broadcast almost daily on the Voice of the Revolution, the Government radio, and printed in the newspaper of the Democratic party of Guinea. Their tone is exemplified by the confession of Gen. Keita Noumandian, who was commander of all Guinean military forces until the day before his recent arrest. ‘I was inducted into the SS Nazi network in 1967 by the West German Ambassador. My salary was fixed at $4,000 month, plus an advance of $200,000’."
This report appeared in that newspaper six days before Guinea and the USSR entered their draft convention on apartheid as a crime against humanity onto the UN agenda. According to later estimates Toure’s regime may have killed up to 50 000 people in these purges. Many died by being sealed in their cells in Camp Boiro without food and water, the so-called “black diet”, and starved to death.
The Soviet Union could hardly be described as a state driven by any kind of principled objection to imperialism, abuses of human rights, or ethnic and racial persecution. It was, at the time, a leading practitioner or sponsor of all three. The convention was rather a political maneouvre aimed at putting the West firmly on the spot at the UN. Firstly, ‘apartheid’ was just an extension and continuation of earlier racialist Anglo-Saxon policies of segregation pursued by the British in many of its colonies (including South Africa) and by the United States through the Jim Crow laws in the Southern States. Secondly, no self-respecting new-nation at the UN was ever going to do anything but vote for it given the hostility towards any form of enduring ‘colonial’ (‘European’) rule. And, thirdly, it put Britain and America in the awkward position of having to oppose a measure violently denouncing apartheid (a cause which united almost all post-colonial nations), even while they claimed not to support it.
The convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly on a vote of 91 for to 4 against, with 26 abstentions. In his remarks explaining the US’ decision to vote against it Ambassador Clyde Ferguson Jr said that it was not necessary in view of the broad, all-inclusive provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Moreover certain provisions “could be damaging to the very structure of international law, and even to the constitutional structure of the United Nations itself. Deplorable as it is, we cannot, from a legal point of view, accept that apartheid can in this manner be made a crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity are so grave In nature that they must be meticulously elaborated and strictly construed under existing international law, as set forth primarily in the charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and as applied by the Nürnberg Tribunal.”
The convention was then opened to signature. The signatories included a host of Marxist-Leninist and Arab- and black- nationalist regimes. One of these was Uganda under the rule of Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada. Amin was well known at the time for having dispossessed and expelled the entire Indian population of his country in 1972. He had followed this up with a mass killing spree against the black African population of his country. In 1974 the International Commission of Jurists released a report describing a “reign of terror” in that country. As the New York Times reported on 4 August 1974:
“The killing has struck nearly every tribe in every region of the country, including more than 59,000 people from ethnic groups formerly identified with the Obote regime and several thousand from General Amin's own tribe, the Kakwa. According to witnesses, the methods used in the killings match the horror of the numbers. There are reports that entire villages were slain by machinegun and that the bodies were fed to crocodiles in the Nile River or carried to mass graves in, the bush. Some victims have been made to kill each other with hammers or to consume their own flesh until they have bled to death. There are numerous accounts of death by sexual abuse and mutilation as well is dismemberment of live people.”
In March the following year Amin’s government signed the convention. Later that year, on the 1st October 1975, Amin was given two ovations at the start and end of his address to the General Assembly in which he denounced Israel and white ruled South Africa. (The following month the General Assembly endorsed a notorious resolution “determining” that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”.) Other signatories of the 1973 convention included Guinea and the USSR, East Germany, Burkina Faso, Bulgaria, Algeria, Iraq, Hungary, Poland, Mongolia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Syria and Argentina. With sufficient signatures appended the convention entered into force on 18 July 1976. No Western democracies seem to have ever signed up to or ratified the convention. By contrast many of the initial signatories, as well as those who later ratified the convention, were regimes that were either already guilty of - or later went on to perpetrate - the most horrific crimes against humanity, including racial and ethnic pogroms, mass murder, and genocide.
To conclude, it should not be hard for anyone with any kind of moral and principled objection to racial discrimination to make the case - on the merits - that apartheid, alongside various other forms of racial discrimination and persecution, was a ‘crime against humanity’ of a particular kind. Having set this standard this should then obviously be applied across the board, regardless of the colour of the perpetrators or victims. One should not fall prey to the sly racial nationalist trick whereby their past crimes are used to justify their present ones.
The UN General Assembly in the mid-1970s was however, in most part, an awful conglomeration of vicious and murderous dictatorships which generally condoned and celebrated (as with Amin) the most horrific abuses of human rights. To invest it with any kind of authority over any moral question, as our intellectuals have done in this current debate, is quite simply an offence against human decency, let alone humanity.