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South Africa: Lead UN to Action on Somalia, Darfur and Burma During Security Council Presidency

Letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
South African Minister of Foreign Affairs
Pretoria, South Africa

Your Excellency,

We write in advance of South Africa’s assumption of the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in April to offer our thoughts on how South Africa could provide strong leadership at the Council on key human rights issues.

As April approaches, Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about three countries where systematic and serious human rights violations - including crimes against humanity - have had a hugely damaging impact on civilians and human rights conditions in general. Two are in Africa: Somalia and Darfur. The other is Burma/Myanmar. We understand that these issues will be high on your list of priorities. We believe that determined and principled South African leadership in the Council could help the international community to make significant progress in addressing all three situations.


South Africa has a strong record of speaking out on the need for Security Council engagement on the appalling human rights situation in Somalia. We are sure you would agree that the international community’s neglect of Somalia’s people is nothing short of scandalous. The human rights and humanitarian situation in Mogadishu and south-central Somalia is dire. Up to 700,000 people are estimated to have been displaced from the city since early 2007 due to attacks from all warring parties: the insurgents, Ethiopian troops and forces allied with the Somali transitional government. Ongoing attacks, threats and violence provoke new displacement on a daily basis.

The scale of displacement is clearly linked to widespread and ongoing abuses of human rights. Somali civilians are suffering from targeted and indiscriminate armed attacks, mass detentions, and enforced disappearances. Humanitarian agencies face huge challenges in their efforts to provide assistance to displaced persons and people living in other areas of Somalia, partly due to continuing Somali government obstruction, but also because of serious security concerns including targeted attacks. As the UN Secretary-General’s report on Somalia last week noted “the lack of accountability, for past and current crimes, reinforces a sense of impunity and further fuels conflict (in Somalia)."

The international community must respond strongly to this staggering crisis. South African leadership of the Council presents an opportunity to do so. Your government is no doubt focused on improving the political and security environment, and a robust response to the human rights crisis in Somalia can support this important objective. Human Rights Watch calls on South Africa to act on the following recommendations:

  • Initiate a Security Council resolution establishing an international commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict;
  • In the same resolution or in a parallel presidential statement, publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of the human rights crisis, condemn war crimes and other violations by all of the warring parties, including Ethiopian troops and forces allied to the transitional Somali government, and emphasize that individuals responsible for serious international crimes will be held accountable;
  • Call for an increased UN human rights monitoring and reporting presence for Somalia, through an urgent expansion in the number of human rights monitors from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This presence would assist in filling the current information void, improving public and policymaker awareness of the human rights situation and potentially strengthening protection efforts on the ground as regular credible reporting is established. That presence should also include experts with relevant expertise on child protection and sexual and gender based violence.

We urge South Africa to lead in promoting these actions. Your leadership would give the long-suffering people of Somalia some hope that they will no longer be ignored by the international community and that the era of impunity in Somalia will soon come to an end.


You undoubtedly share our concerns about the unacceptable situation facing some two million civilians in Darfur and Chad. A resurgence of indiscriminate attacks on civilians by government forces and government-backed militia has caused new massive and needless suffering. The February government offensive in West Darfur saw displacement and killing of civilians on a scale not seen since the darkest days of the crisis in 2004 (as graphically reported in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report of March 20). Rebel and ex-rebel groups also continue to carry about abuses against civilians.

While South Africa has made a significant and vital contribution to the African Union/United Nations hybrid peacekeeping force (UNAMID), the force is still missing critical units, and Khartoum continues to blatantly obstruct its deployment. As a result, the force will not even reach half its authorized strength until mid-2008, a full year after the UN resolution authorizing it.

We urge South Africa as president of the Council to work for the following actions:

  • A Security Council resolution condemning the recent and ongoing bombardment of civilian areas in West Darfur and calling for the Panel of Experts to investigate who is responsible to be followed by the imposition of targeted sanctions on responsible individuals.
  • Swift, effective and unhindered deployment of UNAMID, including by ensuring that the government of Sudan at all levels actively facilitates this process. In particular, formal Sudanese government agreement should be secured to the deployment of Thai and Nepalese UNAMID contingents without delay and to further deployment of non-African troops where there are no equivalent African troops ready and able to deploy.
  • On April 27, the anniversary of the issuance of the first arrest warrants for crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, a presidential statement demanding that the Sudanese government immediately surrender the two suspects named in the warrants for trial.

In addition, sexual violence remains a horrible fact of every day life for women and girls in Darfur, with little or no opportunity of redress for the victims. We urge South Africa to convene a meeting of the Council on sexual and gender-based violence in Darfur to identify specific steps that the Sudanese government could take with support from UNAMID to address these crimes and the lack of access to justice. The Council should call for regular reporting from the Secretary General on implementation of such measures, and indicate its willingness to impose targeted sanctions on any individual responsible for the failure to take those measures or for obstruction of them.


My January 2008 letter to Deputy Minister Pahad set out in detail our concerns about South Africa’s recent actions on Burma/Myanmar. As you know, SRSG Gambari’s latest trip has just ended. It is clear that the situation is not improving. Burma’s military dictatorship is resisting the kinds of measures that will help move the country beyond violence and oppression and towards a more pluralistic future.

Human Rights Watch believes that the Burmese military regime will make the changes essential for real progress only if it comes under serious and sustained pressure from the Security Council. What we are seeing now is pretence on the part of the regime. The planned constitutional referendum is fatally flawed. It could be effective if it were based on South Africa’s instructive experience of its post-apartheid process. The Myanmar authorities must engage in a good-faith, structured dialogue with the opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy, and ethnic parties. This is the only way to achieve a genuine and durable political settlement that will set the country on the path to becoming a rights-respecting democracy.

As it monitors events in Burma, the Council and its members should be extremely careful – in their analysis and public statements - to distinguish substantive progress from the cosmetic. The Burmese military’s “concessions” so far fail even the most basic credibility test.

Conflict in Africa

Finally, we are pleased that South Africa is making a major push at the Council in April to address conflict issues in Africa.

Human Rights Watch fully supports raising international awareness of the many ongoing peace, security and rights challenges affecting the African continent. The evidence suggests that concerted action by the international community can help improve human rights conditions facing threatened civilians in conflict zones. Positive examples in recent years include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, southern Sudan, Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone. South Africa has played a role in many of these. Significant challenges remain, of course. But South Africa’s presidency of the Council is an opportunity for an authoritative “southern” voice to speak up and lead the defense of civilians WHO ARE caught up in conflict or become the innocent victims of related human rights violations. We hope you will seize the opportunity with both hands.

As you may be aware, Human Rights Watch has recently opened an office in Johannesburg to improve our understanding of southern African rights issues and South Africa’s approach to human rights. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these and other issues. Please contact our South Africa Director at any time for further information.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

H.E. Mr. Dumisani S. Kumalo, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations
H.E. Mr. George Nene, Head of Multilateral Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs, South Africa

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