Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Op-ed: SA voting for authoritarianism

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Business Day, Friday 25 July 2008. For more info see here and here.


Dumisani Kumalo


A distressing record of siding with the bad guys


By David Ansara and Michael Meadon


Recently the South African government rejected a draft resolution of the United Nations Security Council (SC) for sanctions on Zimbabwe following the presidential runoff elections of 27th June 2008.

Along with China, Libya, Russia and Vietnam, South Africa voted against the draft resolution which, (a) called for a return to democracy, (b) imposed an arms embargo and (c) placed targeted sanctions on the upper echelons of the government. Notably, South Africa was the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution.

South Africa's UN ambassador, Dumisani Kumalo, argued that while the government was worried about the situation in Zimbabwe, South Africa is obliged to follow the African consensus as expressed by SADC and the AU, neither of which called for sanctions but simply expressed "grave concern". Kumalo went on to say that "dialogue" between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC parties is the only way the problem can be addressed.

There is a tendency to see the South African government's approach to Zimbabwe as an anomaly in an otherwise noble foreign policy agenda. However, a cursory glance at South Africa's short history on the Security Council (SC) tells an altogether different story. More accurately, the failure to support the Zimbabwean resolution is just one instance in a worrying trend of endorsing authoritarianism. The most notable example of this was in the tacit support for the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar).

In its first major action after being elected to the SC, South Africa voted with Russia and China against a draft resolution on Burma that censured the military junta over its continued human rights abuses and called for democratic reforms. This included an injunction to end attacks on Burmese citizens, including sexual assault, abduction and acts of torture against minority groups and opposition supporters.

Since both China and Russia wielded vetoes, South Africa's vote was technically moot, however, its failure to support the resolution had major symbolic repercussions. By refusing to confront the regime South Africa put its desire to score points against the permanent members from the West ahead of the emancipation of the Burmese people. As a consequence, South Africa's international reputation as a guardian of human rights and democracy suffered enormously.

While Russia and China's 'no' votes on such matters are to be expected, South Africa's hostility to punitive measures was unseemly. According to Kumalo, the government was concerned about the situation in Burma but was worried that adopting the resolution would compromise the work of the Secretary General's envoy to Burma. He also suggested the resolution had overstepped the mandate of the SC set out by the UN Charter and that it dealt with issues best left to the Human Rights Council (HRC).

The similarities in the positions taken by the South African government vis-à-vis the Burma and Zimbabwe situations are striking. However, the validity of its reasoning in both cases is flawed in several ways.

As dictatorial regimes seldom give up power voluntarily, there has to be a change in the material circumstances of the dictators themselves for meaningful change to occur. The current Zimbabwean talks hold much promise, but it is unclear whether the results will be lasting or substantive (a la the Kenyan scenario). There is little to suggest that the mere act of "dialogue" can produce results in the absence of a force that compels the incumbents to cede power.

With regards to the SC deferring to the HRC on questions of human rights, this too is disingenuous. Firstly, the HRC has no power and functions solely as a deliberative body. The HRC has no teeth and therefore no bite. Secondly, it is limited because a large proportion of its members are themselves frequent abusers of human rights, such as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, South Africa's voting record on the HRC is itself abysmal – South Africa has shielded authoritarian regimes in that forum as well.

Mostly however, South Africa is hiding behind an absolutist definition of sovereignty. The idea that national sovereignty – adopted as a governing principle of international relations for purely pragmatic reasons at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – is some sort of grand, unbreakable moral principle is patently absurd. South Africa should not pretend governments have the right to slaughter their own people. As Kofi Anan declared in his final speech as Secretary General of the UN "[Collective responsibility means] that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed"

Indeed, it is ironic that the ANC, which benefited from South Africa's isolation over the "purely sovereign" issue of Apartheid, would adopt a reactionary position with respect to the right to freedom of other peoples. As Desmond Tutu exclaimed at the time of the rejection of the Burma resolution, "If others had used the arguments we are using today when we asked them for their support against apartheid, we might still have been unfree." How long will South Africa continue to vote for authoritarianism?

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