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If South Africa gives up its leading role in the worldwide struggle for justice, it will be a great loss for the world, for Africa and for South Africa.

South Africa could use today’s vote to restate its claim to a leading role in the international debate on human rights. Instead, it appears to have decided to follow the African group consensus and vote for a no-action resolution.

At its birth, post-apartheid South Africa was a beacon of hope for the human rights movement and oppressed groups all around the world. The perception that South Africa was going to be a new and different kind of nation gave it a special status in the world. Today, barely a decade later, South Africa appears to be abandoning the principles that gave it power and is in danger of becoming just another ordinary, middleweight regional actor.

The most obvious example of this shift is the failure of President Thabo Mbeki and his government to provide the democratic movement in Zimbabwe with the kind of support that the anti-apartheid movement received in its struggle to end white rule. In fact, Mbeki is practising the strategy (constructive engagement) that he decried when it was practised by the Reagan administration in South Africa in the 1980s.

But of equal cause for concern is the possibility that the Mbeki government may join other African governments to prevent the Commission on Human Rights from taking steps to address the egregious violations of human rights that are being committed in Darfur.

Despite recent actions by the U.N. Security Council, the situation in Darfur remains critical. More than 2 million people are living like prisoners in towns and camps for the internally displaced. They are unable to return to their villages, unable even to leave these camps to collect firewood or water due to the continuing attacks, rape and assault by government-backed militia members and other forces.

For the past two years, Sudanese government forces and government-backed ethnic militias have committed attacks of extraordinary brutality against civilians in Darfur. In response to the international outcry, the security council appointed an international commission of inquiry. Two weeks ago, in a historic move, the security council referred the situation of Darfur to the International Criminal Court.

Because South Africa is not on the security council, it was not required to vote on the referral, but it is believed to have supported, at least tacitly, the action. Now, in Geneva, when it has a chance to take a public stand against the abuses in Darfur, it does not appear to be ready to speak out.

Privately, some government officials have suggested that, for regional political reasons, South Africa must keep in close step with the African group’s position on human rights. But, with countries such as Libya, Zimbabwe and Sudan playing a leading role in the group, such a policy will ensure that South Africa will usually end up voting against human rights.

If South Africa gives up its leading role in the worldwide struggle for justice, it will be a great loss for the world, for Africa and for South Africa. The world will lose a voice that is able to speak out credibly against the governments of great powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom when they fail to live up to the principles they espouse.

Africa will lose the leader it so desperately needs if it is to realise its hopes of a political and economic rebirth. And South Africa stands to lose its special international status in the world, and the influence that it gained from that status.

Clough is the advocacy director for the Africa division, and Freih the Geneva director of Human Rights Watch.

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