South Africa’s international record on human rights is faltering. While the country is a strong supporter of combating racism and poverty, it is unwilling to hold other countries to account for their own human rights violations.

The 26th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) begins this week and the spotlight will once again fall on South Africa’s voting record.

In 2006, South African officials, in supporting South Africa’s candidacy for the UNHRC, stated that the country took the international human rights agenda very seriously. However, South Africa’s voting record during its first two terms at the council, and more recently, at the 25th session held in March 2014, belies this commitment.

South Africa is a strong supporter of the council’s engagement on issues like racism, and it has participated actively in the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, a review of the rights records of all UN member states. South Africa is also a strong supporter of the UNHRC’s action on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, its voting record on country specific situations and some rights issues has been considerably disappointing.

For example, at the March session, South Africa sought to weaken a resolution on the right to free protest – in line with Russia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China – and took negative stances on other rights issues. It also abstained from voting on all country situations, including on North Korea, Syria, Sri Lanka, and Iran. 

South Africa has justified its actions by arguing that it does not support the council’s work on country-specific situations because they are highly politicized and divisive.

Country-specific resolutions play a key role in shedding light on abuses and giving a stronger voice to victims. They also allow for the creation of independent UN mechanisms that help expose abuse and pressure human rights violators. A broad range of countries support these resolutions, from Brazil and Mexico to the Ivory Coast, Botswana, and Sierra Leone. South Africa should be taking its positions on country situations based on the facts on the ground and an impartial assessment of whether a government should be made to account for its record or not.

As South Africa knows from its own history, sustained and intense pressure is crucial to improving human rights conditions and encouraging reforms. Given its own experience of oppression, South Africa should be standing with victims of human rights violations by taking a more positive stance for the protection of human rights. This session of the council is yet another opportunity to do so.