Use Election to UN Body to Take Strong Stance
January 21, 2014
South Africa’s constitution provides strong protection for human rights and yet people are being attacked because of their sexual orientation or perceived refugee or migrant status. To make matters worse, the government is supporting legislation that would curb the rights to freedom of information and expression.
Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director

(Johannesburg) – South Africa took some steps to protect human rights on the African continent during 2013, but failed consistently to protect human rights at home, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

“South Africa’s constitution provides strong protection for human rights and yet people are being attacked because of their sexual orientation or perceived refugee or migrant status,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “To make matters worse, the government is supporting legislation that would curb the rights to freedom of information and expression.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

In May and June, xenophobic attacks on the businesses and homes of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants displaced hundreds of people in Gauteng province. In June and September, there were similar attacks against Somali nationals in the Eastern Cape province. The police arrested scores of people in connection with the violence, but refused to acknowledge that it was motivated by xenophobia, a necessary step for police strategies to address the problem.

The National Assembly adopted the Protection of State Information Bill on November 12 to regulate the classification, protection, and dissemination of state information after President Jacob Zuma returned a version passed in April for further revisions. But the revised bill fails to address concerns over harsh sentences and penalties for possessing classified information. The government should amend the bill further to ensure that it conforms to South Africa’s own constitution as well as international standards on freedom of information and expression. In particular, it should include a public interest defense for obtaining such information, Human Rights Watch said.

South Africa has played an important role in advancing the human rights of LGBT people internationally, but it has not responded adequately to widespread violence, including rape and murder, against lesbians and transgender people, Human Rights Watch said.

On November 27,  the  Supreme Court of Appeal took the positive step of ordering the South African Police Service to investigate high-level Zimbabwean officials accused of committing acts of torture against opposition party members in Zimbabwe.

South Africa has promoted peace and security on the continent. It contributed forces to the intervention brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and was involved in peace and reconstruction initiatives in South Sudan and Somalia.

In November, South Africa was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, but the government has taken positions at odds with its human rights principles. In August, it endorsed flawed elections in Zimbabwe, and its expressions of concern at the escalation of violence in Syria have been tempered by reluctance to condemn President Bashar al-Assad’s abuses against his own citizens.

“South Africa should promote and protect human rights not only at home but also speak out unequivocally against serious human rights violations abroad,” Kasambala said.

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