By Marissa Cramer, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fellow at UN Watch
Human rights activists and other UN observers were surprised by South Africa’s opposition to recognizing gay rights during recent negotiations on the outcome document for the Durban Review Conference, whose stated aim is to combat racism, discrimination, and intolerance of any kind. The South African representative said that issues of sexual orientation go “beyond the framework of the Durban Declaration.”
The European Union had proposed a while back that the Durban II declaration include protection for gays. However, after strong opposition from Muslim governments, who invoked the omission of gay rights in the 2001 Durban text, the United Kingdom on February 18th suggested an amendment to list sexual orientation only as an aggravating factor, when it intersects with racism. This U.K. proposal prompted South Africa’s response.
The irony of South Africa’s opposition to recognizing gay rights is that it betrays the principles of its own constitution, which states:
“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth” (South African Constitution, Chapter 2, Article 9, Paragraph 3, emphasis added).
South African’s statutes and courts also recognize gay rights. The 2000 Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in South Africa. A 1999 judgment by South Africa’s Constitutional Court recognized equal rights for the partners of gay and lesbian South Africans who apply for permanent residence.
So what explains South Africa’s contradictory position at the U.N.?
One possibility is South Africa’s close alliance with Islamic countries at the world body. Interestingly, the South African government seems to acknowledge that its U.N. votes don’t always reflect its true positions. In a January 8 statement, South Africa explained its decision not to join 66 other states in signing a General Assembly proclamation that condemned discrimination against homosexuals. In fact, said Pretoria, it supported the U.N. statement even though it refused to sign it, saying that “over the years, there have been several declarations that have been presented to the General Assembly and that South Africa has supported without being a signatory.”
As a free democracy with a progressive constitution and a history of overcoming intolerance, South Africa has much potential to be a true leader in the human rights cause. Let’s hope it starts living up to its own standards.