Human rights and South Africa's wrongs

 by Peter Fabricius

Those who have discerned and welcomed very slight improvements in the Zuma administration’s international stance on human rights might have been dismayed by the speech of South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to the Human Rights Council, in Geneva on Monday.

It was a template presentation which could have been – and probably was – copied and pasted out of any number of past speeches to the council.

There was no discernible political input from the minister, no shift in positions or emphasis, no echo of the slightly tougher votes against the human rights abuses of Iran and Burma (Myanmar) which South Africa cast at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York last year.

In keeping with South Africa’s – and indeed Africa’s and the developing world’s – often self-serving aversion to confronting what most people would consider the most fundamental human rights abuses, like the murder and torture of political opponents, Nkoana-Mashabane stressed that; “We believe in the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights on the same par and with the same emphasis as the civil and political rights.”

Having said that, she therefore avoided all mention of all the many political and civil rights abuses across the world over the last year except for those allegedly committed by Israel, calling for action against it for its incursion into Gaza in 2008, including prosecutions by the International Criminal Court.

The Geneva-based NGO UN Watch has noted in a recent report that the UN Human Rights Council has, for example, completely ignored the widely-documented human rights abuses – including executions – of the Iranian government against its political opponents after last year’s apparently-stolen elections. Last year, the council put an avuncular arm around the shoulder of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – a fugitive from the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur – and praised him, like a dim but well-meaning pupil, for his “progress” on human rights.

The council has also ignored human rights abuses in places like China and Cuba. Yet, as UN Watch points out, the council has over the past three years passed 27 resolutions condemning Israel, more than 80 percent of its total of 33 condemnatory resolutions, while giving a free pass to Israel’s mortal enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

 That our minister copied her first speech to the Human Rights Council so conscientiously from the African and developing world template was disappointing… but not surprising to the micro-biologists who study UN behaviour for a living.

They note that South Africa has always voted with the Africa bloc on the Human Rights Council as opposed to the UN General Assembly where it votes on its own. Quite why that is so is rather puzzling but it is certainly true that the Human Rights Council does vote en bloc.

And that is why it remains an inherently compromised institution, despite its re-launch in 2006 with a new name (it used to be called the UN Human Rights Commission) and new rules intended to free it from its political character and ensure it does what it is intended to do – protect ordinary people from abuse. Nearly four years later the council is still no more than a political football pitch where human rights victims are mere footballs.

Presumably South Africa does not have to stick to the bloc system, though no doubt breaking with Africa would incur some political costs, for instance jeopardising the continent’s support for our now almost mythical bid to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But if we have to play this cynical game with the lives of human rights victims in order to get our collective bum on that seat, will we also have to play the same games when we get there, as Africa’s representative? In that case, why bother?

Source:, 20100305

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