Put Human Rights Back into Foreign Policy

Cape Times (South Africa), May 11, 2009 | Go to article overview

Put Human Rights Back into Foreign Policy


The following is an open letter to Jacob Zuma from Georgette Gagnon, executive director, Africa Division, and Tiseke Kasambala, acting director of the South Africa Office, Human Rights Watch.

Congratulations on your election as president of South Africa. We write to urge you to make human rights a major pillar of the new South African administration's foreign policy.

South Africa's successful transition to majority rule in the 1990s resulted in a constitution with some of the strongest affirmations of human rights on the African continent. South Africa became a beacon of hope to those in Africa and elsewhere who continue to endure repression. Given this legacy, South Africa's voice could encourage those who face systematic human rights violations around the globe and assist in ending human rights abuses wherever they occur.

In recent years - including during its two-year stint as a member of the UN Security Council - South Africa unfortunately has chosen to side with some of the world's worst human rights abusers. Justifiable concern over the foreign policies of the US and Israel has led, to some extent, to South Africa's ideological alignment on human rights issues with chronic rights-abusing states like China, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and others. Your recent election offers an opportunity to change that misguided policy and restore credibility to South Africa's foreign policy.

Human Rights Watch has written to members of the previous ANC government about their attempts to undermine international human rights instruments and weaken scrutiny of some of the world's most repressive regimes. Since your early priority is likely to be the African continent, we would like to bring to your attention three countries where systematic and serious human rights violations - including crimes against humanity - have had a hugely damaging impact close to home: Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. Revamped South African leadership could lead to significant progress in addressing all three crises.

A number of interlinking issues continue to undermine human rights in Sudan, primarily conflict, insecurity and obstruction of humanitarian aid in Darfur and the threat of renewed north-south conflict between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

The partners to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) have delayed implementing key aspects of the agreement and, with only two years remaining before southerners are scheduled to vote on self-determination, time is of the essence. Impunity for the worst crimes in violation of international law persists, and the Sudanese government has used the arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as a pretext to expel international humanitarian organisations. This decision has further and unnecessarily endangered millions of civilian lives in Darfur.

Sudan's problems can only be addressed effectively by a "whole Sudan" approach, in which efforts to resolve any one issue should support and facilitate progress in other areas. In particular, any policy on Sudan should focus on resolution of conflict in Darfur, full implementation of the CPA, and protection of civilians and respect for human rights across Sudan.

On March 4, the court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the atrocities in Darfur. Within hours, the Sudanese government responded by closing the operations of 13 international and three Sudanese aid agencies, endangering the supply of food water and medical care to over a million people. The organisations that remain, including UN agencies, are trying to cover some of this critical work, but important gaps persist that are greatly exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. The South African government should press Sudan to reverse this potentially catastrophic decision, and reinstate the full scope of humanitarian assistance in Darfur. …

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