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From Botha to Rumsfeld, the painful question of impunity
by Eric Toussaint , Damien Millet , Renaud Vivien
5 December 2006

Since the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, the International Community has been committed to putting an end to the impunity of those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg judgement led the way by declaring that “the official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment”.

But there is an obvious gap between international commitments and reality. A recent illustration of this is the peaceful death of Pieter Willem Botha, on 31 October 2006 at the age of 9O. Botha was at the head of the apartheid regime in South Africa, as Prime Minister from 1978 to 1984, and as President from 1984 to 1989. His entire political career was profoundly marked by racism: after having been a member of a Nazi organization (the Ossewabrandwag) during the Second World War, he entered the South African parliament in 1948, the year in which apartheid legislation was introduced.

Nicknamed “the Great Crocodile”, he ruled the apartheid regime with an iron hand. The few reforms presented by those who, despite all, insisted on paying tribute to him are rather meagre. In lifting restrictions on marriage between people of different races and in creating a tricameral parliament in 1983 (with separate chambers for mixed-race and for Indians) Botha was just looking to re-legitimize a policy that was increasingly in dispute.

In reality, segregation did not decline: the regime remained based upon white supremacy and the black population still could not vote. At this time there were some 30,000 political prisoners. Indeed, Botha consistently refused to free the most famous prisoner: Nelson Mandela. As these “mini reforms” had not changed the racist nature of this regime, South Africa was the object of new economic sanctions imposed by the UN in 1985. Despite these international sanctions, the following year Botha launched the worst repression in the history of apartheid by declaring a state of emergency after violent clashes between oppressed blacks and police.

In 1989, following a heart attack, he retired from power leaving the position to Frederick de Klerk who then began a progressive dismantling of apartheid, for which he was strongly criticized by Botha. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission before which Botha had refused to testify in 1997 concluded that the latter had ordered the secret services to launch an attack on a building in Johannesburg housing an anti-apartheid group and that he was directly responsible for the attack against the African National Congress (ANC) premises in London in 1987. He was then given a one year suspended sentence but won his appeal on a technicality. Shortly before his death, during a television interview in 2005, he declared that he would never apologize for apartheid.

Despite blatant violations of human rights, for which he was directly responsible, and his refusal to apologize for his active participation in the crime of apartheid, which is a crime against humanity (since the 1968 Convention on the imprescriptibility of war crimes and crimes against humanity), Botha has received tributes from the leaders of several South African parties, such as the ANC, even though this party was classified as a terrorist organization under Botha’s regime and by Heads of State such as Omar Bongo, current President of Gabon. This tribute is quite simply an insult for South African people, in particular for the black population who have suffered Botha’s violent racist politics and who have not obtained justice.

Those who, like Botha, are guilty of international crimes must no longer be allowed to enjoy an intolerable impunity. Indeed, a new opportunity to reiterate this fact has now arisen: the German State Prosecutor will be able to take legal action against the former American Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, for war crimes carried out in Iraq and in the American detention camp in Guantanamo. A suit filed in the criminal courts on behalf of 11 Iraqi victims and a prisoner in Guantanamo by the Berlin lawyer Wolfgang Kalek, who represents several human rights associations, is founded on the law of universal competence adopted by Germany in 2002. U.S. political pressure is very strong when legal action is taken abroad against certain American nationals. Three years ago Belgium considerably limited the scope of its law of universal competence, mainly under U.S. pressure.

Today, social movements must mobilize themselves so that Donald Rumsfeld and those like him are accountable for their actions and so that other governments introduce the law of universal competence and recognize the competence of the International criminal court.

For justice to be done, one must not ignore the active part played by the World Bank and the IMF in financing the apartheid regime. These two institutions disregarded the numerous UN resolutions (of 1966, 1976, 1980, 1985) condemning the help given to the racist regime in the form of large loans to South Africa. In 1976 - 1977, aid given to South Africa by the IMF and World Bank exceeded the total amount granted to the rest of Africa. Over the period 1948-67, the World Bank granted loans far higher than those given to any other African country. Beyond the actual figures, the IMF and the World Bank sent a clear signal of support, both financial and political. Botha then received support from the large European banks that took over from 1980 to 1985 with loans increased fivefold (going from 13 billion to 71 billion). As we see, there have been many players contributing to the longevity of this racist regime and openly infringing the UN rulings.

Debts contracted by this regime - a regime guilty of crimes against humanity - are odious debts, or in other words, regime debts that the South African population cannot bear. In accordance with the doctrine of odious debt, debts contracted by a regime without the people’s consent and from which they have not benefited, should not be repaid by the succeeding government if at the time of the loan the creditors were aware of the intentions of the borrower. There is no doubt in the case of the apartheid regime. Consequently, the portion of these odious debts that has been repaid must be given back to the people of the country. The rest of the odious debt must be abolished.

Damien Millet is President of CADTM France, Eric Toussaint is President of CADTM Belgium, Renaud Vivien is a Jurist with CADTM Belgium (

Translated by Deborah Worsdale

Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France.
He is the author of Greece 2015: there was an alternative. London: Resistance Books / IIRE / CADTM, 2020 , Debt System (Haymarket books, Chicago, 2019), Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012, etc.
See his bibliography:
He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. He was the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt from April 2015 to November 2015.

Damien Millet

professeur de mathématiques en classes préparatoires scientifiques à Orléans, porte-parole du CADTM France (Comité pour l’Annulation de la Dette du Tiers Monde), auteur de L’Afrique sans dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2005), co-auteur avec Frédéric Chauvreau des bandes dessinées Dette odieuse (CADTM-Syllepse, 2006) et Le système Dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2009), co-auteur avec Eric Toussaint du livre Les tsunamis de la dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2005), co-auteur avec François Mauger de La Jamaïque dans l’étau du FMI (L’esprit frappeur, 2004).

Renaud Vivien

member of CADTM Belgium, member of the Truth Commission on Public Debt.