South Africa's Human Rights Hypocrisy

By Msimang, Sisonke | International New York Times, June 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Human Rights Hypocrisy


Msimang, Sisonke, International New York Times


By letting Sudan's president go, the government proved it wants to have its laws and break them too.

In 2012, just before Fatou Bensouda began her tenure as the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, she addressed a large forum of African activists and academics in Cape Town. As she spoke to a room packed with highly educated skeptics -- many of whom claimed that the I.C.C. appeared to have "an imperialist agenda" toward Africa, you could have heard a pin drop.

She confronted the critics head-on, arguing that accusing the I.C.C. of having an Africa bias was offensive. She pointed out that those making such accusations tended to be powerful, influential and deeply invested in making the world "forget about the millions of anonymous people that suffer from their crimes."

And she insisted on naming names: "Our focus is on individual criminal behavior against innocent victims. My focus is on Joseph Kony, Bosco Ntaganda, Ahmed Harun, Omar al-Bashir," she declared. "The Office of the Prosecutor will go where the victims need us."

When she was finished, Ms. Bensouda received a standing ovation.

At the time, I was proud to come from a country that had both signed the Rome Statute establishing the I.C.C. in 2002, and -- with the zealotry of a convert -- ratified the treaty by passing a domestic law called the I.C.C. Act in 2004.

How quickly things change.

This week South Africa allowed Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al- Bashir, to leave the country while fully aware of the I.C.C. warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The I.C.C. claims to have evidence that Mr. Bashir committed these crimes against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups in Darfur on the basis of their ethnicity and used the Janjaweed militia to rape and murder civilians.

Mr. Bashir was in the country to attend a summit meeting of the African Union when a small advocacy group called the Southern African Litigation Center, on whose board I once sat, petitioned a court in Pretoria to determine whether it had jurisdiction to act on the I.C.C.'s warrant. The judge ordered the South African government to bar Mr. Bashir from leaving the country.

By allowing Mr. Bashir to leave the following day, while claiming not to know his whereabouts, South Africa violated international law and its own laws too. More important, it sent the message to victims of war crimes throughout the world that they can't count on the solidarity of South Africa when they need it.

The demise of South Africa's conscience has not been sudden. For at least a decade, it has sent mixed signals about its commitment to human rights. The Dalai Lama has been refused entry into the country eight times because of the government's relationship with China, and senior officials have flip-flopped on gay rights at various international meetings despite having one of the only constitutions in the world that includes explicit protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

There are legitimate objections to the I.C.C., first and foremost that the court will have little credibility so long as powerful countries like Russia and the United States refuse to subject themselves to its jurisdiction. …

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