Syrian activists hope South Africa can pressure Assad
South Africa's history of overturning a cruel government make it an attractive ally for human rights activists in conflict zones like Syria. But will South Africa take the leadership they expect of it?
Johannesburg, South Africa
As Syrians continue to take to the streets, facing a brutal government crackdown, a delegation of Syrian human rights activists has come to South Africa to build up international support for their pro-democracy cause.Skip to next paragraph
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The choice of South Africa is significant. South Africa is currently a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Its history as a nation that overturned decades of racist apartheid rule through persistent pressure gives it credibility on the international stage. And as a new member of the BRICS economic club (so-named for its members Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), South Africa is part of a group of economically vibrant countries intent on balancing the power of US and Europe.
Iyas Maleh, one of the Syrian delegates and the son of a prominent Syrian human rights activist jailed last year for criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime, says that Syrians look up to South Africa both for its history and for its growing influence.
“We see South Africa as an up-and-coming power that has a future role on the international stage,” says Mr. Maleh. “The Syrian government always uses the excuse that their enemies [the US] are behind all this. At least if they can hear from a friendly country, from a country with a history of human rights, it will let them know the human rights situation is important. We want South Africa to take a leading role in condemning the violence of the crackdown.”
The Arab Spring – that ripple of revolution that started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and Bahrain, and then erupted violently in Libya with an armed rebellion – has left South Africa befuddled, and scrambling for a consistent foreign policy position. As a country that itself toppled a harsh authoritarian minority government, South Africa has a soft spot for revolutionaries. But as a liberation party worried about outside manipulation, particularly from the West, South Africa has often found itself moving slower than other countries in deciding whether to support a tottering regime or not.