South Africa and Abusive Regimes at the UN Human Rights Council

By Jordaan, Eduard | Global Governance, April-June 2014 | Go to article overview

South Africa and Abusive Regimes at the UN Human Rights Council


Jordaan, Eduard, Global Governance


There Is some dispute over the extent to which South Africa has become a defender of regimes that abuse human rights. This article sheds further light on this question by focusing on South Africa's positions during the UN Human Rights Council's engagement with human rights problems in six countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. In five of the six chosen cases, South Africa's attitude ranged from reluctant to obstructive of efforts to defend human rights. In only one case--Israel--was South Africa willing to bring to bear the full weight of the council's power. These findings strengthen the argument that South Africa is prone to shielding regimes that abuse human rights.

KEYWORDS: UN Human Rights Council, South African human rights.

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UPON DEMOCRATIZATION, NELSON MANDELA ANNOUNCED THAT HUMAN RIGHTS would be the light to guide South Africa's foreign policy, but this commitment soon yielded to the need for a pragmatic foreign policy. As Mandela's successor Thabo Mbeki came to direct foreign policy, South Africa's association with Africa became stronger, international economic links more important, and the country's multilateralism more workman-like. The demotion of human rights meant that South Africa became more willing to overlook the rights records of repressive states. But alongside South Africa's meekness appeared a more worrying strain, the active shielding of oppressive regimes from international scrutiny, noticeable in the positions South Africa took on Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. To Michael Gerson, South Africa has become the "despots' democracy," "an example of freedom--while devaluing and undermining the freedom of others." (1) Greg Mills sees in South Africa's about-turn on NATO's invasion of Libya in 2011--South Africa voted for Security Council Resolution 1973 to take military action against Muammar Qaddafi, but three weeks later decried NATO's pursuit of regime change--a furthering of South Africa's "rogue" trend. (2) The same can be said of South Africa's pushback against Western moves to take strong action against the Syrian government's brutal suppression of the protests that erupted there in January 2011. Not all agree that South Africa has sold out on human rights, least of all the South African government, which continues to say that it assigns "great importance to the promotion of human rights." (3) In an extensive review of human rights in South Africa's foreign policy, Alison Brysk acknowledges South Africa's shortcomings, yet still regards the country as a "global good Samaritan," proof that "a victim of abuse can become a champion of its remedy." (4)

Given South Africa's strong commitment to multilateralism, there has been a handful of studies that considered the extent to which South Africa uses multilateral forums to defend abusive regimes. (5) These studies strengthen the case that South Africa is a protector of abusive regimes, but the findings are far from decisive. A significant gap in the literature is on South Africa's actions on the UN Human Rights Council (hereafter, UNHRC or the council, (6)) an institution South Africa sees as the appropriate forum for international efforts to address human rights problems. (7) Thus, in this article, I examine South Africa's role on the UNHRC against the background of the question about the extent to which South Africa is a protector of regimes that abuse human rights. The bulk of the evidence comes from 2006-2010, when South Africa was a member of the UNHRC. Since leaving the council after having served the maximum two consecutive terms, South Africa has remained active in council business but, as an observer, may not vote.

Since I address South Africa's stance on abusive regimes, my focus falls on country-specific human rights problems and sets aside thematic issues, another major part of the council's work. South Africa's labors on thematic issues have more to commend them than its country-specific contributions, but even here there are serious problems such as South Africa's strong support for an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation initiative to curb free speech to prevent the "defamation of religions. …

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