SA on human rights: all fuzz and no fizz

2008-12-13 00:00

This week was the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whatever the manifest failings of the UN, it is a document that has had a profound effect for good on international law, on the conduct of nations and on the lives of literally millions of people.

And since the declaration was a potent weapon in the African National Congress’s arsenal against apartheid, it is appropriate that the South African government expressed warm and fuzzy sentiments on the occasion. But it is also rank hypocrisy.

South Africa consciously and regularly undermines the ideals underlying the declaration with its support for despotic, barbarous regimes like those in Sudan and Zimbabwe. These are countries that violate with obscene gusto most of the 30 articles defining fundamental human rights.

SA cannot even hide behind the excuse that its shielding of such regimes is for reasons of realpolitik, and so advances SA’s interests in some practical way. Quite the opposite: the ANC’s actions demean SA’s once considerable moral stature for a questionable African “unity”.

As a fundamental constitutive document underpinning the charter of the UN — the organisation of which SA has pretensions to be a full-time Security Council member — the Declaration theoretically obligates UN member states to exert moral and diplomatic pressure on nations that violate its articles. That, of course, must be why SA steadfastly opposes the kind of international intervention that might end the genocide in Sudan or, right on SA’s doorstep, the collapse of Zimbabwe.

Not all African governments are as craven as SA. Botswana, Zambia and Kenya have all over the past months expressed their support for more forceful intervention in Zimbabwe, a crisis the rest of the world has entrusted to Africa to resolve.

Kenya and Botswana go beyond calls by European Union countries and the United States that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe resign. They are all gung-ho to invade and topple him by force.

Practicalities aside, this is not an outlandish idea. The UN makes provision for collective military intervention — a “responsibility to react” — if all non-coercive measures fail to prevent “crimes against humanity”. More controversially, there is also an emerging norm in international law of intervention in exercising the “right to protect” when a state fails to protect its own citizens as, for in-stance, when disease and starvation grip a country.

This might seem entirely academic. After all, Zimbabwe (Sudan also, for that matter) has cast-iron insurance against UN intervention in the form of China’s Security Council veto.

However, although it will be scant comfort to the oppressed of Zimbabwe, the real issue is not an imminent foreign invasion. It is to build inexorably to breaking point the pressure on Mugabe and that requires building pressure on the ANC government that is protecting him, much as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government protected P. W. Botha. Former president Thabo Mbeki has scant credibility as the Southern African Development Community negotiator. A steadily hardening international line threatens Mbeki and might yet give him enough fizz to pressure Mugabe.

Africa specialist Dianna Games talks of Africa’s “false egalitarian notion” that all states are equal and their internal affairs, no matter how corrupt and repressive, are of no concern to the world.

The change of attitude of Nairobi and Gaberone and a slowly broadening circle of African nations brings first real hope of change in Harare.

This is something that Mbeki, who has grandiose visions of heading an institute to strengthen democracy and governance in Africa, unfortunately appears oblivious to.

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