For a country headed by someone part of a polygamous family, we might have expected more from South Africa than endorsing a narrow and potentially harmful reference of what actually constitutes “family.”  

But that’s just what happened today, as South Africa supported a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council aimed at protecting the family. The resolution, sponsored by a group of states lead by Egypt including Russia, China, Namibia, Sierra Leone, and others, refers only to “family” in the singular, and although it does not try to define “family,”’ it declines to even use the word “families” and also omits previously agreed UN language that recognizes that various forms of families exist in different social, cultural, and political contexts.

The action called for in the resolution is simply for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on the status of the “family” and for the Human Rights Council itself to convene a “panel discussion” at its next session on the subject. However, those who oppose equal rights for the diverse forms of family that do exist, hope that by referencing only “family,” they will be able to restrict the human rights of LGBTI families, single parent families, and the many other families that do not conform to traditional and sometimes conservative ideas about families. Many of these families already face hostility and abuse of their rights in their daily lives and this resolution is not designed to protect their human rights.

It is particularly galling that South Africa cast its vote in favor of the resolution and also supported a move by Russia to block discussion of a proposed amendment that would have introduced more diverse language. South Africa has come a long way in recognizing the many forms families take and protecting the rights of all family members. Looking at just a few important milestones: the Domestic Violence Act contains an inclusive definition of family and explicitly includes same sex relationships and also criminalizes marital rape. Same sex parents have the same rights as heterosexual parents, and customary and Hindu marriages are legally recognized and law reform proposals are on the table to recognize Muslim marriages. Polygamy is legal and a law protects the rights of women in polygamous unions. This progress is laudable and South Africa should focus on making sure that these laws and policies are properly implemented, rather than voting for resolutions that will undermine them.

It is well known that President Zuma is part of a polygamous family – a somewhat unusual family situation. I wonder how he will feel when he realizes that South Africa contributed to the failure of this resolution recognizing diversity?