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South Africa’s Light on Human Rights Dims Again at the UN


Cyril Ramaphosa, right, elected president of South Africa on Feb. 15, 2018. The country was a beacon of light on human rights under Nelson Mandela but shifted away from that leadership under President Jacob Zuma. It’s unclear how Ramaphosa will proceed on the matter. 

When the monthlong winter session of the United Nations Human Rights Council opened at the end of February, expectations were high that progress would be made on reforms demanded by the United States and supported by many other nations, although not in as threatening terms as those of Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s ambassador to the UN.

In the end, nothing changed, as a majority of developing nations and Muslim governments took every opportunity they could to oppose Council reforms. Most direct in its inflexible position, especially on issues involving Israel, was South Africa. Tutored by China, which has been seeking more influence in the Council, South Africa has enhanced its leadership within an anti-Western bloc, backing the Chinese desire to stifle the voice of the Human Rights Council and curtail its global monitoring role.

This is a critical year for human-rights work at the UN. Hovering over rights advocates and governments that had signed on to a proposed plan for Council reform is the specter of China — and perhaps Russia — pressuring Secretary-General António Guterres as he faces the task of naming a new High Commissioner for Human Rights to replace Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein.

(Possible candidates are rumored to be Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile; Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who has led Unesco; Ivan Simonovic, a Croatian who is a UN expert on human rights; Marta Santos Pais, the UN envoy for violence against children, from Portugal; Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka and ex-UN envoy for children and armed conflict; Asha-Rose Migiro, a Tanzanian who was a UN deputy secretary-general; Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, a Gabonese who heads the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic; and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African who leads UN Women.)

Zeid has said that he will not ask for and could not accept a second term while powerful nations on the Security Council were not supporting his activist leadership and were trying to force him into concessions he refused to make.

South Africa had been a beacon of light on human rights globally under President Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. That reputation has dwindled over the years.

In April 2016, the South African government, under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, was beginning its third stint on the Human Rights Council when a delegation of Chinese officials arrived in South Africa for “consultations.”

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During talks in Pretoria, the capital — now renamed Tshwane after a Zulu leader — “both sides exchanged views . . . on multilateral work on human rights,” a statement from the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said at the conclusion of the first of these meetings. It added: “Both sides agreed that with great significance and fruitful results this time, the consultation will further enhance bilateral coordination and cooperation. The two sides also agreed to establish a regular consultation mechanism of human rights.”

Zuma, who had allowed the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, under indictment from the International Criminal Court, to visit South Africa and then slip away after a judge there ordered his arrest, was forced from office in February. He lost a vote for the leadership of the African National Congress, the country’s legendary and still-dominant political party.

On Feb. 15, his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman in the party leadership, was sworn in as president. It is too soon to determine whether Ramaphosa will reverse Zuma’s inward-looking international policies. They have included a threat to leave the International Criminal Court, a moved stalled by a South African court, which ruled the move unconstitutional.

This year, acknowledging that reform was a difficult subject to breach at the Human Rights Council, a group of five nations from Europe, Africa and Latin America gathered more than 130 countries and civil society organizations in Geneva last Dec. 1 to develop proposals to defuse the crisis fueled by Haley’s threats to withdraw from the UN body.

The steering nations on reform — the Netherlands, Britain, Latvia, Rwanda and Mexico — supported by the Universal Rights Group, a Geneva-based think tank devoted solely to human-rights issues, considered numerous areas where “the Council could do better,” a report from the group of nations said.

Concrete suggestions in three areas included revising the Council’s agenda, building capacity for human-rights action around the world and redesigning elections for Council membership. The first and third areas spoke indirectly to the American complaints about, respectively, the perennial singling out of Israel for condemnation under a notorious provision known as Item 7 and the undemocratic system by which Council members were chosen.

Nevertheless, there were five resolutions on the Council agenda this year critical of Israel under Item 7. As summarized by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, these resolutions, some of them seemingly duplicative, dealt with “human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan; the right of Palestinian people to self-determination; the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem; Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan; and ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.”

The five resolutions were adopted by a majority of the Council, with only the US and Australia voting against them in all cases. A number of votes against Israel and numerous abstentions, however, masked the possibility that there were countries friendly to the US that could disaggregate concerns about Israeli policies in dealing with Palestinians from Council procedures — if there would be flexibility on the American side.

South Africa remained inflexible. The UN human-rights office summary of South Africa’s position recorded that “South Africa, in an explanation of the vote before the vote, expressed its satisfaction that the Council had kept agenda Item 7 as it was its moral responsibility to the children and women of Palestine.

“Agenda item 7 had to stay,” the summary said in recording South Africa’s position. “The Council could not pick and choose which countries to focus on. Simply because people had gone through horrendous experiences, they were not allowed to do the same to others. Imagine South Africans advocating for apartheid because of their own experience.”

Eduard Jordaan is in the politics department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where he teaches human rights and political philosophy. His research focuses on the Human Rights Council and human rights in the foreign policies of developing countries. He was the first to write extensively on South Africa’s mounting alienation in the Council over recent years.

“South Africa’s opposition to the Dutch-led effort to reform the Human Rights Council is unsurprising,” he wrote in an email to PassBlue. “During the Council’s first year (2006-07), delegates had to decide on the rules for the Council’s new mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review [of national rights records] and what to do about the practices and mechanisms it had inherited from its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights.

“South Africa consistently and prominently supported proposals that would strengthen the hand of rights-abusing states and weaken that of the international community. South Africa proposed that investigations into human rights violations in a specific country should not take place if the country in question opposed such an investigation. South Africa was firmly behind the Algerian-led effort to curtail the independence of the special procedures with a ‘code of conduct.’

“As for the Universal Periodic Review,” Jordaan wrote, “South Africa favored an arrangement that would give states as much influence as possible — and civil society as little as possible — in the writing and scrutinizing of each national report. South Africa’s opposition to the recent attempt to make it harder for rights-abusers to be elected to the Council is consistent with its past contributions to institutional reform of the Council.

“There is another aspect to South Africa’s hostility to reform,” Jordaan said. “South Africa is not merely fending for abusive regimes; it also sees itself as fighting against ‘imperialism.’ On the Council, where South Africa seldom votes with the West, Western states have long considered South Africa to be a hostile delegation.

“That the Council’s focus on Israel is disproportionate is obvious, but keeping item 7 is about more than whether Israeli abuses are less or more severe than those committed elsewhere. The West is complicit in Israeli brutality and oppression. Retaining item 7 allows those with an anti-Western axe to grind with a platform for making this point.”

Among the specific proposals that emerged in the report from the December conference was one that could defuse the endless battle over Item 7 without making fundamental changes to Council procedures, by combining issues and proposed resolutions on a group of troublesome countries.

The report said: “The main sponsors of resolutions could be encouraged to reach out to the main sponsors of substantively similar initiatives, to discuss the possibility of merging or otherwise ‘clustering’ initiatives. In this regard, it was noted that delegations would need convincing that they are not ‘losing’ their initiatives — but rather enhancing their initiatives through cooperation.”

Both South Africa and Haley appear to be, ironically, close to similarly dismissing this suggestion, but from opposing sides. (Haley was not at the session in Geneva, the UN’s second-most important headquarters, where the US has not appointed an ambassador since Trump took office.) She rejects virtually all criticism of Israel in the Council and has not publicly commented on whether downgrading such criticism to a “one among others” category would be acceptable.

South Africa, which is influential among developing nations, had meanwhile demanded that Item 7 be kept intact.

On the extremely complicated issue of reforming the process of electing governments to seats in the 47-member Council, the reformist governments noted in their report that “a number of speakers — from all regions — argues that ‘eliminating clean slates will not automatically lead to improved membership.’ “

Clean slates describes the current system whereby regional groups — Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern European, Latin America and Caribbean and Western Europe and others, including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — present pre-chosen, uncontested slates of candidates to fill their allotted seats (with occasional exceptions when regional rivals refuse to accept the officially chosen countries).

The report also noted: “Some participants argued that it might be even better for countries with poor human rights records to be members of the Council — because this places a spotlight on their actions. . . . “

A list of 18 suggested changes and contradictions followed, illustrating that making major changes in Council election rules and procedures could take a long time to achieve consensus on action.

Sean Jacobs, an associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York and founder of the website Africa is a County, wrote in the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions 2018 book that internationally, South Africa has moved away from the West in more general terms, even as it faces “all kinds of stresses, much of them self-inflicted.”

Jacobs, who was born in Cape Town and worked as a researcher at The Institute for Democracy in South Africa, wrote: “South Africa, like most other African States, is pivoting east toward China and Russia. . . . At least 50% of South Africans think China has a positive influence on their country, according to the research network Afrobarometer. . . . To some extent, the closer relationship reflects China’s power, and the Chinese present aid and investment with few conditions, countering Western power blocs.”

Against that backdrop, South Africa is unlikely to resume its role as the African continent’s strongest voice in human rights.


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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