South Africa is abuzz after its Sunday Times, citing UN Watch analysis, published an exposé of the country’s negative voting record on human rights issues at the United Nations. The story has since been published by the BuaNews wire service, SABC and other South African and international media.

The Times story revealed how South Africa consistently votes at the UN with the likes of Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia, instead of standing in solidarity with human rights victims. However, the UN Watch report cited by the Times was actually released in May 2007 — and not last week as reported. Our study, Dawn of A New Era?, measured all 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council based on 20 key votes. (See pages 26-27 of the report, or 31-32 in your PDF viewer.) South Africa’s score lies at the bottom with a grade of minus 16, tied with countries like Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

(It should be noted that South Africa was also rated at the bottom in a more recent study by a separate non-governmental organization, the Democracy Coalition Project, which measured country support — or opposition — for credible and effective UN human rights mechanisms. For South Africa’s ratings, see page 2 of that report here.)

Our survey of the first year of the Council looked at every country resolution, including measures for the victims of Darfur, as well as resolutions that support mechanisms of human rights scrutiny or that concerned freedom of speech. Regrettably, South Africa voted consistently at the UN in solidarity with the perpetrators of human rights violations, instead of with the victims.

The South African government’s response, published on its website, suggests that they never read our report. They claim that our study only looked at one agenda item and was not “holistic.” In fact, however, a quick glance at our report’s methodology, outlined in detail at page 5, shows that it covered a broad range of key issues and agenda items. To assess the Council’s performance, we focused on its most meaningful human rights actions, including resolutions and motions that were widely considered among HRC stakeholders to be important and were treated as such by members through their statements and actions.

The most important class of resolutions for diplomats and human rights activists has always been the “name and shame” votes where a specific country is censured. In addition, our report also reviewed other meaningful votes such as:

  • Two Islamic-group texts on “incitement to racial and religious hatred” and “combating defamation of religions.” These resolutions seek to suppress perceived offenses against Islam — and even to justify violent reactions thereto — and are inconsistent not only with free speech protections but with the fundamental principle that international human rights law protects individuals, not religions.
  • A resolution sponsored by the African Group imposing a “code of conduct” on human rights monitors and a resolution by China for the “Like Minded Group” limiting the independence of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Both of these are acts of intimidation by regimes interested in hiding their abuses, and the way in which countries voted demonstrated their commitment to protecting the UN’s non-political human rights mechanisms.
  • A resolution by China and the Like Minded Group on “globalization and its impact on the full enjoyment of all human rights” suggesting, nonsensically, that globalization negatively impacts all human rights.
  • A Cuban-sponsored resolution requiring the Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to consider and report to the Council on “the negative impact on populations” of “unilateral coercive measures”— a political jab at the United States for its trade embargo against Cuba.
  • A successful motion by Islamic states to postpone three thematic resolutions sponsored by Canada, introduced solely out of retaliatory spite after Canada voted “no” on the Islamic group’s fifth and sixth censures of Israel.

The government statement also made some ad hominem attacks on UN Watch that were ill-considered and inaccurate. We shall respond in due course.

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