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South Africa will soon have a chance to use its UN Security Council seat to show that when it comes to Syria, it is fulfilling Nelson Mandela’s hope that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy.”

Sadly, South Africa’s voting record over the past year and a half has been mixed when it comes to human rights.

The Security Council is currently negotiating a draft resolution to reauthorise cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries to northeast and northwest Syria, which has enabled millions of Syrians to survive for years. The resumption of medical aid shipments to Syria’s northeast is especially important, to prevent a further spread of COVID-19 that could devastate the region.

President Cyril Ramaphosa should take this step to help restore South Africa’s rights-based foreign policy. As a nation that aspires to become a permanent member of an expanded Security Council someday, South Africa should use its votes to demonstrate sustained leadership on human rights. One such vote would be in support of reauthorising UN humanitarian aid deliveries from Iraq and Turkey to areas not under government control.  And it should try to persuade Russia and China to do the same.

Human Rights Watch research has shown that Damascus’ restrictions on aid from both the capital and Iraq have prevented medical supplies and personnel from reaching two million people in northeast Syria. The al-Yarubiyah crossing on the Iraqi border, which the World Health Organization used for aid deliveries until Russia demanded that it be shut down, is particularly important.

Last month the South African delegation rightly told fellow members of the Security Council that now is not the time to reduce the delivery of aid to northeast Syria. But it also mentioned Damascus’ right to restore control over the entire country.

The WHO and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have said that aid organized from Damascus is woefully insufficient to combat COVID-19. Our research has shown that aid agencies face significant obstacles transporting aid from Damascus to areas of northeast Syria outside government control. South Africa should support the WHO and OCHA and help persuade Russia to prioritize saving lives over placating President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia, which has pro-actively supported Assad in the conflict there, has advocated ending all cross-border aid to those in need in Syria, under the pretext that it undermines Syria’s sovereignty. But the unexpected spread of the COVID-19 pandemic since January has highlighted just how crucial access for humanitarian assistance via al-Yarubiyah is. Alternative sources proposed by Russia and others, including crossline deliveries from Damascus, have failed to close the gap in meeting the desperate humanitarian needs of the civilian population.

While sovereignty is a core component of the international system, it is not absolute and does not preclude UN Security Council or its member states from working to improve humanitarian assistance to civilians in countries where there is a dire need, particularly where the country itself has shown, as Syria has,  that it is unwilling or unable to improve conditions. Countries that favor a hands-off policy, arguing for a form of blanket sovereignty, risk allowing the preventable suffering and death of civilians and acquiescing to serious human rights violations, on the basis of a flawed theory.

In earlier votes, in December and January, Pretoria voted in favor of continuing cross-border aid for Syria. It should stand by this when the next time to vote comes, and actively oppose attempts to remove any of the proposed border crossings.

Despite South Africa’s stated commitment to human rights, its Security Council voting record has been mixed. For example, it joined Russia and China in abstaining from a vote to renew the South Sudan arms embargo, and actively opposed discussion of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.  Negotiations on cross-border aid for Syria offer Pretoria an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to human rights.

Germany and Belgium circulated a draft resolution last week that would have the Security Council reauthorize the northwest Syria border crossings for 12 months before their mandate expires on July 10, along with a renewable emergency reauthorisation of al-Yarubiyah for six months.

South Africa should support the draft and urge all other council members to do the same. Denying cross-border aid to the northeast or northwest will cause unnecessary suffering and deaths.

Instead of siding with those who are content to allow governments to abuse their citizens in the name of sovereignty rather than save their lives, South Africa should set an example by advocating for the continuation of vital aid deliveries to the most vulnerable people in Syria.

Dewa Mavhinga is the Southern African director at Human Rights Watch.

Louis Charbonneau is the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch.

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