Reparations for atrocities laudable

HARARE - The MDC announced at the weekend that it will pay reparations for victims of Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina and other episodes of violence if it assumes power.

It is a noble proposition to compensate victims of widespread and systematic crimes.

Genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which fall into these categories, are held as the most abhorrent of crimes; and the perpetrators are considered “enemies of all mankind.”

Perpetrators of such crimes must be held to account and institutions, organisations and governments that presided over the abuses should not evade liability.

It is also both a moral and legal imperative to compensate victims of these offences.

It is within this context that the MDC ‘s undertaking to pay reparations for victims of Gukurahundi and Murambatsvina and others is laudable.  

Debate has centred on whether Gukurahundi fits the elements of the crime of genocide.
Given that genocide is about “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” a plausible legal argument can be advanced that Gukurahundi holds elements that fit the crime.

The massacres were confined to particular region and ethnic group. However, an intention to eliminate such group would have to be proven for a claim of genocide to succeed.  

Proving that this was the purpose of the campaign is nettlesome given a counter-claim that the objective was to eliminate, not an ethnic group but insurgents.

An argument for genocide would posit and prove that the sole purpose of the Zanu PF government was to eliminate the Ndebele as an ethnic group, in whole or in part.

Notwithstanding strict legalese, there is no doubt that egregious crimes were committed against many innocent civilians.

International law has not quite established the numeric threshold for the crime of genocide.

The government of President Robert Mugabe sat on findings.

However, an independent report estimated that 20 000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the Gukurahundi atrocities.

Debate on retributive justice for Gukurahundi is, however, academic, at least at the international level, because the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not operate retroactively.

In other words, it does not look backwards; thus Gukurahundi falls outside its temporal mandate.

On the other hand, Murambatsvina seems to possess elements of “crimes against humanity,” taken as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.

These would include forcible transfer of population and other inhumane acts causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury. Murambatsvina was widespread, systematic and caused harm.

UN envoy Anna Tibaijuka estimated that Murambatsvina affected at least 700 000 people directly through loss of their home or livelihood and thus could have indirectly affected around 2.4 million people.

While Gukurahundi falls outside the ICC’s temporal remit, Murambatsvina occurred in 2005 after the Rome Statute establishing the court had come into force in 2002.

Whatever the legal debates, the two episodes and others deprived thousands of citizens of their lives, bread-winners, homes and sources of livelihood.

Reparations contribute to societal aims of rehabilitation, reconciliation, consolidation of democracy and restoration of law.

They can also help overcome traditional prejudices that have marginalised certain sectors of society and contributed to the crimes perpetrated against them.

A sentiment persists among the population of Matabeleland in particular, which incurred the worst of the barbarities of Gukurahundi, that the region has traditionally been ostracised.

The feeble attempt at rehousing the victims of Murambatsvina also evinced lack of genuine concern for the affected.

The MDC must, thus, be applauded for recognising the importance of repairing wrongs of the past as such processes comport with international good practice in post-conflict societies.

While the MDC’s pledge to pay reparations to victims of these acts and others is praiseworthy, the party must be warned against harvesting political capital out of these dark episodes.

The MDC has made a gargantuan commitment at both emotive and practical level.

If it gains power, Zimbabweans will hold them against this otherwise noble objective.

Reparations come with procedural and substantive challenges, ranging from identifying the deserving recipients after such lengthy passage of time and more significantly, availability of funds to compensating a potentially huge number of both direct and indirect victims.

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