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.

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File
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.

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?

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.

This year, when Cote D’Ivoire’s former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing reelection and instead unleashed his army to seize control of all government offices and fire on protestors, South Africa again avoided condemnation. Instead it attempted to cobble together a powersharing deal between Mr. Gbagbo and President-elect Alassane Ouattara. The effort failed, and human rights activists say that the conciliatory move only encouraged Gbagbo to keep fighting, thereby increasing the death toll.

Even so, South Africa has also made some moves that demonstrated courage and dedication to principles. When the UN Security Council voted to condemn Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s use of violence against civilian demonstrators, South Africa shelved its usual solidarity with African leaders and voted with the majority. Later, South Africa also voted for military intervention to protect civilians, under UN Resolution 1973, but has complained that NATO has overstepped its original mandate and attempted regime change.

Relations between South Africa and the West have soured so much that when the US formally requested for South Africa to delay the return of exiled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrande Aristide, who the US feared would destabilize Haiti, South Africa’s government said that the matter was up to the Haitian government to decide.

But Bolopion argues that human rights should be a matter of principle, not of politics. And as the Security Council considers how to handle the alarming increase of violence by the Syrian government against its own citizens – with reported death rates far higher than those that occurred in Libya – South Africa should vote on what is best for protecting citizens, and not spurn all international action simply because it disagrees with how its vote was used by NATO in Libya.

“Do not punish the Syrian people for what you believe NATO is doing wrong in Libya,” says Bolopion. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. You can’t accuse the West of double standards if you are doing the same thing yourself.”

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