Human Rights Watch voices concerns about new trends in South Africa’s foreign policy, as witnessed in the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council.

South Africa’s successful transition to majority rule in the 1990s resulted in a Constitution with some of the strongest affirmations of human rights on the African continent. South Africa became a beacon of hope to those in Africa and elsewhere who continue to endure repression. As a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of the G-77, Non-Aligned Movement and the African Group, South Africa’s approach to human rights matters a great deal.

Your statement in November associates Human Rights Watch with a campaign relating to the Durban review process. In fact, Human Rights Watch has made no statements relating to the Durban review, much less criticized South Africa in that regard. Perhaps Human Rights Watch has been confused with the organization UN Watch. Despite the similarity in our names, our two organizations are entirely unconnected, and have substantially different mandates and methods of work.

You also asserted that Human Rights Watch does not criticize the human rights conduct of “Western governments that fund them” in places like Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Both aspects of that statement are inaccurate. Human Rights Watch receives no funding from governments, nor has it ever done so. This principle is essential to our work. We are committed to exposing and ending human rights violations, wherever they are committed and whoever is responsible for them. Our organization is known for its independence and the even-handedness with which we address human rights abuses throughout the world.

Human Rights Watch has in fact been a relentless and vocal critic of the policies of the U.S., U.K., and other Western governments not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with regard to their human rights violations at home. Such reports include Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention (February 2007); ‘No Blood, No Foul’: Soldiers Accounts of Detainee Abuse in Iraq (July 2006); Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the US Abuse of Detainees (April 2005); ‘Enduring Freedom’ Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan (March 2004); Forced Apart: Families Separated and Immigrants Harmed by U.S. Deportation Policies (July 2007); UK: Counter the Threat or Counterproductive? Commentary on Proposed Counterterrorism Measures (October 2007); France: In the Name of Prevention: Insufficient Safeguards in National Security Removal (June 2007); and Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War (September 2007). All of these reports, and many more, are available on our website: .

You are correct, however, in noting that Human Rights Watch has been critical of South Africa’s foreign policy on human rights, especially with regard to the government’s actions at the United Nations Security Council and the Human Rights Council (HRC). We would like to take this opportunity to express in greater detail the concerns we have about South Africa’s positions in both fora.

South Africa has repeatedly stressed, including at the General Assembly this past November when it voted against a resolution on the human rights situation in Iran and abstained on a resolution regarding Burma, that the Human Rights Council should be the exclusive forum for addressing human rights issues within the United Nations. Human Rights Watch believes that assertion is misguided, and represents a huge step backwards for protection of human rights worldwide.

One of the most important advances in human rights in recent years has been the acceptance that protection of human rights is a theme that must be present within all the work of the United Nations. This conclusion derives not only from the importance of human rights concerns, but also because human rights are inextricably linked to the United Nations’ other major areas of concern: peace and security, and development. As former Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted in 2005, “we will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.”

South Africa’s attempt to divide the indivisible and relegate human rights issues to the Human Rights Council in Geneva flies in the face of this reality. When South Africa suffered under the oppressive weight of apartheid, the UN Security Council adopted at least a dozen resolutions calling for action regarding ongoing abuses. The Security Council did not evade that responsibility by pointing to the work of the Commission on Human Rights on the same subject. Just as the Security Council justifiably engaged for more than two decades on the human rights situation in South Africa, the Security Council today has recognized that human rights abuses do not just result from conflict, they are often the driving force behind instability.

Indeed, Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo appeared to support this view when he intervened in a UN Security Council debate on 31 October 2007 on Western Sahara. He pointed to a perception of double-standards on human rights in the Council, saying:

“The least that would have been expected from this Council would have been for it to support the Secretary-General in his warning to the parties …to respect the human rights of the people of the Western Sahara.”

South Africa at the UN Human Rights Council

South Africa has also tried to undermine the work of the new Human Rights Council by failing to press for action on human rights in that forum and seeking to weaken human rights protections. Human Rights Watch has engaged actively in each session of the Council. During our work in Geneva, we have seen examples of this first-hand and would like to highlight four examples.

South Africa’s Role on Darfur

South Africa has made an important contribution to the protection of civilians in Darfur through its contribution of forces to the AU mission and its pledge to continue providing troops to the incoming hybrid UN-AU force. Those contributions must, however, be matched by a willingness at the political level to use pressure as needed within both the Human Rights Council and the Security Council to secure the cooperation of the Sudanese government, without which peacekeeping operations cannot succeed, and to address ongoing human rights abuses.

Regrettably, South Africa has chosen not to. Your government has consistently sought to weaken HRC efforts to address the human rights crisis in Darfur. On November 28, 2006, South Africa voted against a resolution calling for all parties, including the Sudanese government, to bring to justice those responsible for killing, raping, and injuring civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan. As a compromise aimed at securing passage, the resolution avoided speaking directly of the Sudanese government’s responsibility for such crimes. After voting against that relatively weak resolution, South Africa voted in favor of an even weaker resolution put forward by Algeria that expressed concern at human rights violations in Sudan, but avoided placing any responsibility on the Khartoum government, and in fact called for additional financial and technical assistance for the government of Sudan.

In December 2006, the Human Rights Council agreed to send a High-Level Mission, headed by a Nobel Laureate, to Darfur. Although the Sudanese government denied visas to the High-Level Mission, the mission’s members made a diligent effort to fulfill their mandate, and prepared a detailed report regarding the human rights situation in Darfur. When the High-Level Mission sought to present its report to the HRC in March 2007 however, several states actively tried to block it from doing so. When approached on this point, South African diplomats informed us that they were on instructions to work towards consensus within the African group, and since Algeria (then coordinator of the African group) was leading the push to block the report, they were not able to support its introduction. We understand that in fact South Africa was actively siding with Algeria on this point. South Africa remained silent during the debate on the HRC floor about consideration of the High-Level Mission’s report. Fortunately, a number of African states, including Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritius, and Gabon, openly voiced their support for consideration of the High-Level Mission’s report, eliminating Algeria’s ability to speak on behalf of the African group on this important point.

South Africa’s Role under Resolution 1503 on Uzbekistan and Iran

Also, during its March 2007 session, the HRC voted to discontinue consideration of Iran and Uzbekistan under the confidential Resolution 1503 procedure, despite the fact that the human rights situations in both countries had actually worsened in the prior year. Human Rights Watch urged South African diplomats in UN fora to support continuing consideration of the human rights situations in both countries. We were told that South Africa was reluctant to take action against other countries, and instructions to support continuing consideration of Uzbekistan and Iran would have to come from Pretoria. Shortly thereafter, South Africa voted in favor of discontinuing consideration of both countries, in effect rewarding the governments of Iran and Uzbekistan for their records of non-cooperation with the United Nations and their crackdowns on human rights. The UN Committee against Torture recently found that torture and ill-treatment remain “widespread” in Uzbekistan and continued to occur with impunity. In Iran, the rate of publicly known executions rose by more than 80 percent in 2006 to 177, including the sentencing to death of 10 men following a one-day trial. Harassment of human rights defenders and lawyers has also intensified, and the Iranian government declared illegal the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, led by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

South Africa’s Position on the Special Procedures System

As you said in your November statement, much of the Human Rights Council’s work does not focus expressly on country situations. The Council’s system of special procedures – which address both thematic and country issues – is the backbone of the HRC’s work. These experts investigate and document human rights violations, make recommendations, and help advance protection of human rights on a broad range of issues, including both economic and social rights and civil and political rights. The incisive reporting by these experts does, however, make certain states uncomfortable, when their own practices are examined or criticized. Not surprisingly then, some states have sought to use the creation of the HRC as an opportunity to dismantle or substantially weaken the system of special procedures. As with any group of professionals, the experts are and should be accountable for their work. Concerns from some states about the methods of operations of the special procedures led to a proposed “Code of Conduct” for the experts. Although the most significant weakness in the special procedures system has been the lack of cooperation by some governments with these experts, the draft Code of Conduct covered only the actions of the mandate-holders themselves, and did not address state responsibilities regarding the system of special procedures. South African diplomats were unwilling to add provisions relating to state responsibilities to the Code of Conduct.

In addition, South Africa sought to include in the Code of Conduct several provisions that would have significantly undermined the ability of special procedures to operate independently and effectively. South Africa tabled a proposal to enforce the Code of Conduct through the creation of an Ethics Committee. Unlike other professional codes of conduct where peers are assigned to enforce standards, the South African proposal would have given states the ability to sit as judges on the actions of special procedures. Given the vested interest that some states have in weakening the special procedures system, this proposal presented a fundamental challenge to the integrity of the special procedures. South Africa also proposed that special procedures would be required to have security provided by host governments when on mission. This proposal would have substantially compromised the independent operation of special procedures, and was uniformly opposed by those who have held special procedures mandates.

Fortunately, neither South African proposal was included in the Code of Conduct adopted by the Council in May 2007.

South Africa’s Role on Integration of Human Rights of Women

On December 14, 2007, the Human Rights Council considered a resolution on the human rights of women and integrating gender into its work. This initiative was led by Chile and supported by 50 states. The resolution was aimed at ensuring that the new Human Rights Council improves upon the practices of the Commission on Human Rights by taking concrete steps regarding how the HRC addresses the human rights of women. South Africa played an unhelpful role by threatening to propose amendments to the resolution, and offering only weak support for the text once a consensus was reached. Ambassador Mtshali noted in her statement on the resolution that it “presents some serious concerns to my country.” She argued that some paragraphs of the resolution “seek to take the council…on a wrong path” and that the resolution “purports to give mandates and powers to the Council that it clearly does not possess.”

Such comments are deeply disturbing given South Africa’s stated commitment to women’s rights, and the broad-based support for the resolution within the Council as a whole and within the Africa group in particular (only Egypt joined South Africa in criticizing the resolution). South Africa’s narrow view of the HRC’s mandate and powers is particularly troubling given its efforts to push off discussions on human rights issues from the Security Council to the Human Rights Council. If South Africa maintains these troubling positions, human rights issues would be segregated within the HRC, and the potential for effective action by the HRC would be extremely limited.

South Africa at the UN Security Council

While these examples paint a compelling picture of South African obstruction on human rights within the HRC, the South African record at the Security Council has been equally disturbing.

South Africa and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

In June 2007, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, addressed the Security Council for the first time in two years. Ms. Arbour’s presentation focused on her recent trip to the Great Lakes region, an area where the security implications of ongoing human rights violations are obvious to all. Yet, Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, who was first to take the floor after the High Commissioner’s presentation, began by challenging the fact that she had spoken to the Security Council at all. He noted that the presentation was interesting, but inappropriate for the Security Council, and belonged instead at the HRC. Importantly, no other member of the Security Council took up South Africa’s points. The Republic of Congo and Ghana both praised the High Commissioner’s presentation, and no country supported South Africa’s views. The United Kingdom expressed surprise that some countries were still focusing on artificial divisions of competencies of UN organs, and noted that when issues are taken to Geneva, there is always a reason to reject them there too.

South Africa on Burma

In its first vote at the Security Council on January 12, 2007, South Africa voted against allowing the Security Council to consider a mild resolution on human rights issues in Burma.

South Africa’s argument at that time was that this was not a matter of international peace and security. It also argued that Burma was a matter to be dealt with at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Given that stand, it would have been reasonable to expect that South Africa would raise the situation in Burma at the HRC’s March 2007 session. Yet, despite calls by organizations including Human Rights Watch for the HRC to discuss Burma in March, South Africa did not follow through on its statement that Burma should be addressed by the HRC, and remained silent on Burma during the HRC’s March session. The HRC did not consider any action regarding Burma until the Burmese government’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests in late September. Given the escalation in the crisis, 53 states called for the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on Burma. Inexplicably, South Africa was not among the states seeking a special session.

More recently, when the Security Council held discussions on Burma on November 13, it was noticeable that South Africa was almost alone in failing to criticize the continued grave human rights abuses in Burma. Other governments highlighted recent arbitrary arrests, including of Su Su Nwe and U Gambira; the failure to release political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the continuing detention of hundreds held following the recent demonstrations. South Africa, in startling contrast, merely welcomed a series of small concessions made by the Burmese generals, while failing to put them in any context.

Some More Positive Signals from South Africa on the ICC and Somalia

In contrast to the concerns noted above, Ambassador Kumalo has recently made strong statements regarding cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the need for Security Council engagement on Somalia. On both points, Human Rights Watch strongly supports the position taken by South Africa. With regard to the ICC, Ambassador Kumalo urged Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC, and called for the Security Council to issue a declaration on this subject, although he did not specifically call upon Sudan to surrender the two suspects wanted by the ICC (Ahmed Haroun and Ali Kosheib) or to remove Haroun from his ministerial post.

With regard to Somalia, Ambassador Kumalo was quoted in press reports as arguing that “The UN has to find a way to go in there. The Charter says maintain international peace and security everywhere. It doesn’t say except Somalia.” Human Rights Watch has documented serious violations of international humanitarian law by all of the warring parties in Somalia. Up to 400,000 people fled Mogadishu in March and April, and tens of thousands were forced to flee again in November when clashes intensified. Human Rights Watch has called for the establishment of an independent panel of experts to investigate the abuses associated with the recent conflict in Mogadishu and an expanded human rights monitoring presence in Somalia. We urge South Africa to build on its recent statements on Somalia by working to ensure those steps are taken.

Looking Forward

South Africa is rightly admired throughout the world today because of its human rights achievements. Given this legacy, South Africa’s voice could be a powerful tool to push for change in countries whose people continue to face systematic human rights violations. Human Rights Watch urges South Africa to take this course fully and consistently. South Africa’s commitment to development and promoting peace are fundamental pillars of its foreign policy. We believe that credibility on human rights is central to these objectives and can help South Africa’s efforts at the UN and beyond.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss further with you and your colleagues in the government the possibilities for enhancing South Africa’s role in protecting human rights worldwide, and any questions or points you may have about the work of Human Rights Watch. We would be pleased to visit you in Pretoria to open a dialogue on these issues. Please let us know what dates and time would suit you.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

Rikky Minyuku
South Africa Director