The following op-ed appeared in today’s Sunday Times of South Africa.

South Africa at the UN: Your Freedom and Mine

Hillel Neuer

At the United Nations recently, South Africa outdid even Saudi Arabia in opposing or refusing to support resolutions for victims of human rights violations in Belarus, Burma, Iran, and North Korea. When questions arose over this policy, criticised in March by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “a betrayal of our noble past”, the government’s reaction was to lash out. It would do far better to simply respond to the legitimate concerns of its citizens.

The current debate emerged in local newspapers and on national radio after an exposé in a recent issue of the Sunday Times, citing data from non- governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Switzerland-based UN Watch. But for observers of the world body the government’s latest votes were all too familiar, part of an increasingly long line of decisions in 2007 that have seen South Africa stand with the perpetrators instead of the victims.

In January this year, shortly after assuming its two-year seat on the Security Council, South Africa joined China and Russia as the sole members to oppose a resolution urging Burma to free political detainees and end sexual violence by the military. South Africa has often dismissed such initiatives as campaigns by the wealthy North. Yet if Ghana, Panama and Peru could support the text — and Congo, Indonesia and Qatar could quietly abstain — why did Pretoria help hardliners Moscow and Beijing to kill the text, shielding the generals of Rangoon?

Here, as elsewhere, South Africa gave technical reasons. The resolution, said UN ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, treated issues “best left to the Human Rights Council.”

To call this disingenuous would be an understatement. Not only had the majority of the new council proclaimed a strict policy of blocking consideration of country situations, but South Africa was a vocal proponent. It actively voted in March to discontinue scrutiny of violations by Iran and Uzbekistan. On June 12, it urged members to “terminate all country mandates.” The result? A week later, the independent experts into abuses in Cuba and Belarus saw their mandates permanently scrapped.

In an October study by the Democracy Coalition Project, countries were measured by their support for mechanisms addressing violations in specific countries (like Burma), ensuring the much-touted universal review of all states would be more than a toothless exercise and protecting the independence of country and thematic investigators. In all cases, South Africa was found to be on the wrong side, among those acting to eviscerate Kofi Annan’s original plan for an effective council.

It is time for Pretoria to answer some basic questions:

  • Was Burma’s suffering really “best left to the Human Rights Council”? After the Security Council resolution was blocked, the Human Rights Council predictably said and did absolutely nothing, until long after it was too late. If either body had demonstrated timely resolve, would that have helped to prevent Burma’s bloody arrest of thousands of peacefully demonstrating monks last month — and the killings?
  • The government claims human rights victims are better helped by “quiet diplomacy”. Yet the victims implore the international community to shine a spotlight on abuses their governments seek to hide. From Burma it was Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy who urged the Security Council to speak out. Similarly, from Darfur to Cuba, dissidents and victims come to the Human Rights Council pleading for public action. Does South Africa know something the victims do not?
  • Why, in July, did South Africa join a minority of 13 countries in opposing UN accreditation of a Canadian gay rights NGO?
    Ambassador Kumalo insists his policy is to defend “the rules”. Yet when the Human Rights Council rammed through a set of changes in its midnight manoeuvre on June 19 — famously denying Canada its right to vote and then pretending there was “a consensus”— why was South Africa complicit in this unprecedented trampling of basic procedures?
  • As the greatest beneficiary of UN human rights action to help end apartheid, can South Africa now deny help to others?
  • Why did Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad try to tarnish independent NGOs, falsely claiming they were funded by “major Western powers” and behind a “campaign” against South Africa?

The truth is that the activists for political prisoners in Havana, Minsk and Pyongyang are of the same movement that fought for Nelson Mandela.

South Africa should not forget his famous words: “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch in Geneva.


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