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Dear President-elect Zuma, 

Congratulations on your election as president of South Africa. We write to urge you to make human rights a major pillar of the new South African administration's foreign policy. 

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.  Given this legacy, South Africa's voice could encourage those who face systematic human rights violations around the globe and assist in ending human rights abuses wherever they occur.

In recent years - including during its two-year stint as a member of the United Nations Security Council - South Africa unfortunately has chosen to side with some of the world's worst human rights abusers. Justifiable concern with the foreign policies of the United States and Israel has led to some extent to South Africa's ideological alignment on human rights issues with chronic rights-abusing states as China, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and others. Your recent election offers an opportunity to change that misguided policy and restore credibility to South Africa's foreign policy.

Human Rights Watch has written to members of the previous ANC government on their attempts to undermine international human rights instruments and weaken scrutiny of some of the world's most repressive regimes.  Since your early priority is likely to be the African continent, we would like to bring to your attention three countries where systematic and serious human rights violations - including crimes against humanity - have had a hugely damaging impact close to home:  Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe.  Revamped South African leadership could lead to significant progress in addressing all three crises.


A number of interlinking issues continue to undermine human rights in Sudan, primarily conflict, insecurity and obstruction of humanitarian aid in Darfur and the threat of renewed north-south conflict between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).  The partners to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) have delayed implementing key aspects of the agreement, and with only two years remaining before southerners are scheduled to vote on self-determination, time is of the essence.  Impunity for the worst crimes in violation of international law persists, and the Sudanese government has used the arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as a pretext to expel international humanitarian organizations. This decision has further and unnecessarily endangered millions of civilian lives in Darfur. 

Sudan's problems can only be addressed effectively by a ‘whole Sudan' approach, in which efforts to resolve any one issue should support and facilitate progress in other areas.  In particular any policy on Sudan should focus on resolution of conflict in Darfur, full implementation of the CPA, and protection of civilians and respect for human rights across Sudan.

On March 4, 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the massive atrocities in Darfur.  Within hours, the Sudanese government responded by closing the operations of 13 international and three Sudanese aid agencies, endangering the supply of food water and medical care to over a million people. The organizations that remain, including United Nations agencies, are trying to cover some of this critical work, but important gaps persist that are greatly exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. The South African government should press Sudan to reverse this potentially catastrophic decision, and reinstate the full scope of humanitarian assistance in Darfur.

The African Union and individual African governments, instead of openly condemning the expulsions and standing up for Darfur's most vulnerable, have raised a possible deferral of the ICC's investigation and prosecution of President al-Bashir.  Human Rights Watch believes that a deferral would be wholly inappropriate in the current context.  It would reward those who have denied vital assistance to vulnerable populations-thereby encouraging further abuses-and would risk impunity for future mass  atrocities without clearly identifiable benefits for international peace and security. 

South Africa, as a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC and a decisive influence in the Court's establishment, will be expected to support the ICC's work in Sudan and comply with its own obligations to cooperate with the Court.  South Africa is also well placed to press African Union colleagues, particularly those party to the Rome Statute, to similarly support the Court and the principles of international justice.

In the meantime, the South African government should also support implementation of the CPA across Sudan, and in particular the preparations required for free and fair elections next year.  The failure of the parties to the CPA to implement many of the agreement's key provisions has contributed to increased tensions, particularly around disputed areas of the north-south boundary such as Abyei, renewed conflict in the Nuba Mountains, and clashes in Malakal in February 2009.  The Malakal clashes represent the third major breach of the ceasefire under the CPA. Recent violence resulting in a large number of civilian deaths in Jonglei state in Southern Sudan also gives grave cause for concern.  

The new South African government can show a decisive lead by pressing both parties to the CPA to implement the agreement's key human rights and security provisions and to rein in abuses by their own forces, as well as to fast-track preparations for free and fair nationwide elections in 2010, including in Darfur and transitional areas.  The individual parties need increased pressure to ensure the Government of National Unity enacts key reforms to protect civil and political freedoms ahead of the elections, and agree on demarcation of the north-south border, including around Abyei, and honor wealth and power-sharing commitments.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The new South African government should also reengage its efforts to help end violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and set the country firmly on a democratic footing. 2009 is likely to be a pivotal year for the Congo. Political and military developments in late 2008 and early 2009 led to a dramatic shift in alliances allowing the armies of former belligerent states, Uganda and Rwanda, to return to eastern Congo at the invitation of the Congolese government. In joint military operations with the Congolese government, Ugandan forces attacked the Lord's Resistance Army in the northeast in December 2008, while Rwandan forces attacked the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) in the east in January 2009. Both military operations set the rebel groups temporarily on the run, but revenge attacks by the rebels against vulnerable local communities showed the flaws in these military strategies. And there is no indication that lasting solutions have been found to disarm either foreign armed group. Killings and widespread sexual violence continue by both militias and the Congolese armed forces, whose troops continued military operations following the withdrawal of Rwandan and Ugandan forces.

The United Nations force, MONUC, to which South Africa has contributed a substantial number of peacekeeping troops, is now involved in joint military operations with Congolese government forces against the FDLR in what is known as Operation Kimia II.  But peacekeepers have so far been unsuccessful in restraining government soldiers from committing abuses against civilians.  The deputy commander of the Congolese military force is reported to be Bosco Ntaganda, who is under warrant of arrest by the ICC for war crimes. UN member states, including South Africa, should be clear that its peacekeepers cannot support military operations where Congolese soldiers are committing - or have committed - abuses against civilians. Congolese authorities need to discipline and prosecute abusive soldiers to bring the killing, rape and looting by government forces to a halt.  Above all, the UN and the Congolese government should develop an effective plan that prioritizes civilian protection  and strict adherence to international humanitarian law.

South Africa is also well placed to help the Congolese government establish a vetting mechanism to remove from the ranks of the army and police services those accused of serious human rights violations, ensuring they are brought to justice rather than promoted.  Such efforts will help significantly in reestablishing the rule of law and helping to end the culture of impunity that has plagued Congo for far too long.


South Africa, as Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor, is best placed to ensure essential human rights reforms that protect the people of Zimbabwe against abusive rule.  With new leadership in South Africa there is great expectation for a rebalancing of policy towards South Africa using its moral, political and economic authority and leadership in southern Africa to promote respect for human rights, good governance and democracy in Zimbabwe. It is of course in South Africa's interest to have a strong and stable neighbor. An unstable Zimbabwe is a threat to the stability of South Africa and of the region. Zimbabweans also need South Africa's solidarity. Appeasing those - like President Robert Mugabe - who are directly responsible for Zimbabwe's tragic collapse will not bring sustainable solutions.

As you know, Zimbabwean political parties formed a power-sharing government in February 2009 to address the complex governance, economic and humanitarian crisis. However, the crisis persists with human rights abuses continuing. Police intimidation and arrests of activists are ongoing, and supporters of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) continue to violently invade commercial farms. All three parties in the inclusive government have made clear commitments to end abuses, but pro-ZANU-PF police and prosecuting authorities continue to conduct politically motivated prosecutions of political opponents and have failed to investigate allegations of torture. Key state and judicial institutions remain partisan and unreformed. The government is yet to initiate comprehensive legislative reforms and repeal repressive laws like the Public Order and Security Act, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as well as a litany of laws that restrict media operations. The power-sharing government has taken steps towards the making of a new constitution driven by Parliament but the process has been rejected by civil society which demands a more inclusive process.

Without the principled leadership and guidance of South Africa there is a serious risk of the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorating yet further.

Through SADC and AU who are guarantors of Zimbabwe's Global Political Agreement, the South African government should monitor the progress of all parties to the power-sharing agreement in implementing all commitments they made, including human rights legislative reforms, drafting a new constitution, and fresh elections that meet international standards of freedom and fairness.

The South African government can also play a significant role in raising much needed funds and assistance for Zimbabwe. But reforms and mechanisms should be put in place to guard against abuse of those funds and to ensure greater transparency and accountability, otherwise such efforts will fail. South Africa has so far chosen to campaign for the lifting of targeted sanctions imposed on specific individuals in Zimbabwe. These sanctions only target those who have looted the country and profited most from Mugabe's abusive rule. Rather than support abusers, a better strategy might be to press them to commit to, and institute, genuine political change.

Thank you for your attention to these important issues. We hope you share our optimism about South Africa's opportunity to rebuild its position of moral leadership in Africa and beyond. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss further with your 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.


Georgette Gagnon
Executive Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Tiseke Kasambala
Acting Director, South Africa Office
Human Rights Watch


  • Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Minister of State in the President's Office
  • ANC Sec Gen

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