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Could South Africa become a global voice for human rights?

Although South Africa has a strong human rights record within the country, its foreign policy record is less exemplary, Human Rights Watch says.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / May 27, 2011

A May 22 photo of children watching a cultural event organized by the rebels, from a destroyed tank in Tripoli Street, the former center of fighting between the rebels and Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Misrata, Libya. Human Rights Watch says the UN Security Council has been slow to demand that Syria stop attacking civilians because of concerns Western governments used similar demands on Libya to justify a wide bombing campaign.

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File

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Johannesburg, South Africa

If the United States has lost its moral high ground as an advocate for human rights – after its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its “enhanced interrogation techniques” and military courts at facilities like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – then who can activists turn to as a consistent voice for human rights?

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The answer may be South Africa, India, and Brazil, says Philippe Bolopion, who directs United Nations work for Human Rights Watch.

In fact, he’s come to South Africa to make that very point. South Africa’s very history – its great struggle against racist oppression, its leaders who confronted a morally bankrupt system with higher principles of human rights and equality before the law – make it a perfect advocate for human rights. Now, as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, South Africa can have a profound effect on global events.

“We are telling them, if you highlight human rights issues on the world stage, South Africa can play an important role,” says Mr. Bolopion. “But lately South Africa’s position has been that the Security Council shouldn’t meddle in human rights. We argue that there are times when human rights violations – like those in Rwanda – can become a matter for the Security Council to handle.”

South Africa’s foreign policy has been something of a mystery lately to many of its greatest supporters. As a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council in 2007-08, South African steadfastly refused to vote to condemn the governments of Zimbabwe and Burma (Myanmar), when they were using police and military force to crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.

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