Project Coast was a biological weapons program that the South African government developed in the 1970's and 1980's. The leading scientist and administrator of Project Coast was a cardiologist called Wouter Basson This was a massive, ambitious weapons program that created both lethal and non-lethal weapons for strategic purposes, such as making black people sterile, and for tactical purposes such as assassinating political opponents.

Throughout Project Coast Wouter Basson was, allegedly, responsible for numerous murders by supplying biological weapons; in Operation Duel [1982] Basson allegedly supplied lethal pills that killed 200 members of The South West Africa People's Organization.

Why wasn't Wouter Basson charged with crimes against humanity? From my research he is still free, is alive, and has never been found guilty of anything. The United Nations or The Hague have never attempted to charge Basson with crimes against humanity. Why?

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    Hypothesis, "The International Criminal Court (ICC) came into being on 1 July 2002, and can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. " Crime of apartheid. I believe crimes against humanity are tried in the ICC, but the ICC will not try crimes committed prior to its inception.
    – Mark C. Wallace
    Nov 4, 2019 at 11:22
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    Who would charter such a court? You've cited two examples of international courts chartered to deal with war crimes, but apartheid is not a war crime, and is not international. Are there any examples of international courts chartered to deal with crimes against humanity that do not cross international boundaries? I believe South Africa chose a different path to deal with apartheid.
    – Mark C. Wallace
    Nov 4, 2019 at 11:32
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    And please revise the question to include everything in comments. In general, people are not willing to read comments to understand a question - they expect all the information about the question to be in the question.
    – Mark C. Wallace
    Nov 4, 2019 at 11:42
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    Are there any other cases where the development of weapons, as opposed to their direct use, resulted in a war crimes trial?
    – tbrookside
    Nov 4, 2019 at 20:15
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    @tbrookside that's perhaps a good separate question. For a relevant case, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Tesch and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Weinbacher were convicted and executed for their role in distributing Zyklon B; but the legal justification was not a crimes against humanity but a war crime of murdering prisoners or civilians in occupied territory - which doesn't apply for a state executing their own citizens, and for this particular question regarding apartheid, the difference between war crimes and crimes against humanity (and their criteria) is quite relevant.
    – Peteris
    Nov 4, 2019 at 22:02

3 Answers 3


I think you are misunderstanding the nature of international criminal courts or tribunals.

They were established mostly when the international community believes that the national court systems in a conflict region have become unable or unwilling to provide justice. This perceived breakdown is not usually tied to any one case, it depends on a pattern of denied justice. More recent attempts to establish a genuine international jurisdiction like the ICCt suffer from limited participation.

International observers concluded that post-Apartheid South Africa has done a halfway decent job at covering Apartheid-era crimes, considering the difficult circumstances at the time. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was part of the solution. So there is no need to overrule the South African decision if they want to prosecute the case (or not, as it may be).

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    I face the dilemma here that you have given a good answer while expressing an opinion that I strongly disagree with: that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was adequate. Nov 4, 2019 at 17:08
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    @Snack_Food_Termite, edited slightly to highlight that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission left many problems unsolved. Even if it was not "adequate" to providing justice, would you agree that a series of criminal trials would have been worse? Either just the Apartheid perpetrators would have been prosecuted, or the new government would have to go after violent protesters in their own ranks. Neither looked like a good idea.
    – o.m.
    Nov 4, 2019 at 18:20
  • I am not sure if I am totally satisfied with this answer; but it might be the best attempt at an answer. Nov 4, 2019 at 21:56
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    @Snack_Food_Termite For what it’s worth, this answer to me reads less as “the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was adequate,” and more like “the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wasn’t so grossly and blatantly inadequate as to justify the international community stepping in and trampling over South Africa’s sovereignty.”
    – KRyan
    Nov 5, 2019 at 2:05
  • The definition of compromise: Everyone walks away unhappy. Nov 5, 2019 at 21:28

All legal deliberations, civil or criminal, depends on the facts of a case. But I do not know the facts asserted by OP, such as who is Basson, Project Coast and their activities.

I will rely on what is provided in the question and answer OP's main question: "Why wasn't Wouter Basson charged with crimes against humanity?"

What is a Crime?

A long-established legal maxim - actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea - requires two points to be established in order to convict anyone. Essentially you need to prove (1) state of mind for that offence (mens rea) and (2) conduct of accused (actus reus). From Oxford References:

actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea

[Latin: an act is not necessarily a guilty act unless the accused has the necessary state of mind required for that offence]

The maxim that, generally, a person cannot be guilty of a crime unless two elements are present: the * actus reus(“guilty act”) and the * mens rea (“guilty mind”). Most criminal offences require (1) an actus reus (conduct “external” to the defendant's thoughts and intentions) and (2) a mens rea (a specific state of mind on the part of the accused).

Proof of Crime Against Humanity

From the facts provided in OP's question, I am also not sure that there is a crime against humanity (a legal definition). At most, it would be murder (if there is proof), which is a different offence.

Finally, evidentiary proof is required. The burden is on the prosecution and it isn't as straightforward for complicated cases, which an offence of crime against humanity would be.

This is not to say there was no investigation. I do not know of the person or project. But investigations are usually done without broadcasting it to the world. Since I am not privy to this entire matter, I am just giving an opinion.

[Another opinion, this question could be interesting for Law SE]

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    Concur that this might be better served on Law - to my mind the critical question is not the historical facts, but who has jurisdiction to establish a court.
    – Mark C. Wallace
    Nov 4, 2019 at 13:02
  • I disagree; the critical question is why did the court system fail? Because Basson was protected by a corrupt period of history? OK, now it's in law which will overlook the real historical cause and context. Sigh. Nov 4, 2019 at 16:16

Complementary to @O.M's answer, and specifically to the paragraph the OP commented they disliked:

This is a question beyond law, as politics confounds any question of (international) justice, here local-, regional- and geopolitics. The most extensive and best research I know of in this by B. Rappert and C. Gould, and summarized in the book "The Dis-eases of Secrecy".

From Rappert's page on Secrecy & Absences --- Absences often in the sense of Donald Rumsfeld's Unknown unknowns --- I quote,

For instance, one of the topics I have investigated along these lines is the former secret Apartheid chemical and biological weapons programme (titled Project Coast). Through the endeavours of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an extensive legal trial, and various other investigations, the activities of the programme have become treated as emblematic of the perversities of a former time. And yet, each attempt to determine and remember what took place has been structured and delimited by the very investigations that enabled it. Documentary traces and fragments compiled to date signals much still remains unknown and perhaps will never be widely appreciated. As well, despite widespread public discussion about the project, its offensive intentions have never been officially acknowledged by South Africa and other nations. Many have found reason to call for the past to be left in the past.

So it's a mixture of outside indifference and inside convenience, 'as usual'. And having spent a wonderful day in the Apartheid museum a few months ago, including its displays on the TRC, the same silence is there.

  • That's why I started my OP in the history section! Great find for the quote! Nov 5, 2019 at 16:21
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    Nov 5, 2019 at 18:49
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    @Snack_Food_Termite Good to hear! I can strongly recommend the popularly-written book, from your (university?) library or bought online; it's an easier & more coherent read than the related scientific papers. Nov 5, 2019 at 21:05

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