Academic journal article Global Governance

South Africa and Civil and Political Rights

Academic journal article Global Governance

South Africa and Civil and Political Rights

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

At the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), South Africa has a record of defending human rights-abusing regimes. (1) South Africa admits that it opposes "naming and shaming" countries over their rights records, but insists that internationally it is a defender of human rights. South Africa's former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad has argued that if one were to exclude country-specific resolutions and instead looked at South Africa's other actions at the UNHRC, South Africa's commitment to defending human rights "can never be challenged." (2) In other words, if one excluded Agenda Item 4, "Human rights situations that require the Council's attention," and judged South Africa on the remaining nine, mostly thematically organized agenda items, South Africa's record would appear first-rate. In this study, I examine South Africa's UNHRC positions on one thematic human rights area: civil and political rights.

Quantitative studies of human rights voting at the Human Rights Council are not unanimous but allow the tentative prediction that, because South Africa is a democracy and because it respects human rights domestically, it will likely support civil and political rights at the UNHRC. (3) Some theories of international relations provide further grounds for expecting South Africa to support civil and political rights at the UNHRC. The expectation that democracies will support international human rights exists in liberal international relations theory, (4) but is most prominent in constructivism. Constructivists see national identity as an important determinant of a state's international behavior. From a constructivist perspective, officials adopt certain policies because they chime, and because they believe they should chime, with the identity they see their state as holding. (5) The identity of a state implies its preferences, interests, and resultant actions. (6) While national identity shapes foreign policy choices, leaders also justify their choices by referring to the relevant elements of the national identity. (7) We should therefore expect democracies to support human rights internationally--such support is a reflection of the values and self-understandings that predominate in democratic countries.

National identity can change, which means that a state's interests and expected international behavior will also change. (8) The factors that uphold and change a state's identity are both domestic and external and mutually influence each other. Constructivists see states as having more agency than do, say, neorealists, but view states as nevertheless restricted in rearticulating their identity. As Ted Hopf points out, "Choices are rigorously constrained by the webs of understanding of the practices, identities, and interests of other actors that prevail in particular historical contexts." (9)

An initial glance at South Africa's identity suggests that it is likely to be an international defender of civil and political rights. Human rights were central to the fight against apartheid and have remained so in postapartheid South Africa. The 1955 Freedom Charter articulated the core principles of the antia-partheid struggle, envisioning a country in which "all shall enjoy equal human rights." The end of apartheid and South Africa's democratization are held up as a victory of human rights over racial hatred and discrimination, an achievement South Africans celebrate every year as Human Rights Day and Freedom Day. For South Africa's diplomats, the country's Bill of Rights is supposed to be their "Bible," their guide to creating "a better world with more justice and more human rights." (10) Indeed, ever since Nelson Mandela declared in 1993 that human rights will be the light to guide democratic South Africa's foreign policy, foreign policy officials have offered assurances of South Africa's international commitment to human rights. (11) South Africa has defined itself as above while, additionally, the international community has tried to hold South Africa to its pronouncements on human rights and has expected its foreign policy to be consistent with its human rights struggle against apartheid. …

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