Can SA uphold its reputation for human rights on the UN Security Council?

Masana Ndinga-Kanga and Lyndal Rowands

Can an influential African country that was once celebrated as a champion of human rights help hold a powerful Middle East nation to account for its atrocious human rights record? That will be the question on the lips of some observers when South Africa joins the United Nations Security Council in January for a one-year term as a non-permanent member. 

Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in a bilateral relationship with South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, has been increasingly under fire of late for gross violations of humanitarian and human rights at home and in its military campaign in Yemen. As President Cyril Ramaphosa returns home from the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, it is critical for him to renew confidence from the global human rights community of the country's commitment to human rights – not just within South Africa, but also abroad.

Just before it came to power in a landslide election victory in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) spelled out its future foreign policy vision. In a magazine article published then, Nelson Mandela outlined his welcomed "friend to the world" approach, which was founded on the belief that human rights and democracy should be the core concern of international relations, and as such were key pillars of the ANC's foreign policy. 

But much can change over the course of 25 years – not least, how a country puts its policy into practice. The South African government's position on some of the worst human rights offenders has included a cloaked move to bilateral diplomacy out of the public eye. The consequences of this "friend to the world" foreign policy position has often been the implicit and explicit collaboration with some of the worst human rights offenders globally.

When it joins the Security Council for the third time in 2019, South Africa will have to find a way to balance its economic priorities with its own policy commitment to human rights, taking a strong stance against countries that violate international humanitarian and human rights laws, such as Saudi Arabia.

The two nations' bilateral ties have strengthened with Ramaphosa's recent securing of a$10bn investment from the Gulf power. However, the continued economic engagement with the oil-producing giant has created a crisis in global accountability for the gross rights violations endured by activists, especially women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. This crisis is shared across the international community, unable to contend with the impunity of the Saudi regime – from the UN, to the United States, to Britain and Spain, some of whom are the Gulf Kingdom's allies in its ongoing military intervention in Yemen.

Despite its relatively small size, South Africa has a role to play in addressing the crisis in Saudi Arabia, using its Security Council seat to engage in forthright discussion about the human rights violations perpetrated by the government. Failure to do so would indicate how far the ruling ANC has moved from its commitment to human rights since 1994.

Saudi reforms little more than window dressing

In spite of, or perhaps because of, its unwillingness to accept any critique, there remain many reasons to call out Saudi Arabia. For supporters of Saudi civil society, it was always clear that the kingdom's recent overtures to reform were little more than window dressing.

This was particularly obvious when the state locked up the very women who campaigned to abolish its ban on women driving. And it became crystal clear last month when the authorities sentenced women's rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham to death – the first woman to face such a penalty for non-violent protest. The history-making severity of this sentence speaks volumes about how the Saudi rulers regard women human rights defenders and the gender rights they fight for.

There have been other women on the receiving end of such repression. Samar Badawi, a prominent human rights activist was arrested in July 2018. Her whereabouts remain unknown. Badawi's advocacy for women's rights has seen her become a frequent target for repression and she has been repeatedly detained since 2014. Nassima al-Sada, who was arrested alongside Badawi in July 2018, is also known for her work campaigning for women's rights and is a founding member of Al-Adalah Center for Human Rights.

Another 15 women activists were arrested in May 2018. Among them are Loujain Al-Hathloul, a well-known women's rights defender and online activist, who was arrested at her home in the capital Riyadh and is still awaiting charges, Dr Eman Al-Nafjan, founder of the Saudi Woman's Weblog, and prominent campaigner, Aziza Al-Yousef. The level of repression continues to grow and worrying trends highlight the need for urgent intervention.

Hatoon al-Fassi, a leading scholar and defender on women's rights, was detained in June 2018 while on her way to celebrate the lifting of the female drivers ban. Her status and whereabouts remain unknown.

By targeting women activists and others, the Saudi Arabian government has demonstrated its willingness to act in ways that contradict its thin guise of reform. Even within its development plan entitled Saudi Vision 2030, acknowledgement of the obligations of the state to uphold basic human rights remains elusive. This disregard for fundamental freedoms extends not only to domestic repression but also to impunity in the face of external critique.

Another example is the pressure that Saudi Arabia exerted on then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to remove Saudi Arabia from its "list of shame" of countries that had attacked children in armed conflict. Yet just last month, some two years after that UN report, the Saudis seem to regard the UN's willingness to buckle under pressure as a free pass to continue to act with impunity in Yemen.

Security Council members recently asked the Saudi Arabian-United Arab Emirates coalition to investigate itself after it bombed a school bus in Yemen – an attack reportedly carried out with weapons supplied by the United States and other council members. Saudi Arabia admitted wrongdoing, but to date there has not been an appropriate response from the international community.

SA undermines its constitutional principles

There is an opportunity for the Saudi government and its partners to take seriously the reform agenda. In order to be authentic, this transformation must include respect for all human rights, with indivisibility as a guiding principle for change. In their failure to directly challenged the Saudi government, countries that claim to be champions of human rights, like South Africa, are at risk of undermining the very principles upon which their constitutions are built.

This challenge presents itself to Saudi Arabia's partners across the global north and south, who pick and choose the crises they respond to, based on economic interests. The contradictions are innumerable.

The Gulf kingdom's hopes to project a progressive image to the world simply cannot work if it continues to block any and all forms of critique. The right to drive is only a small part of the greater reforms needed for activists, journalists, bloggers and others on the frontline of restrictions in Saudi Arabia. More must be done to protect and free human rights defenders.

South Africa's continued silence on the crisis in Saudi Arabia questions its legitimacy to champion a human rights agenda while serving on the UN Security Council – even with the ANC's emphasis on its renewed commitment to the promotion of human rights. But only actions can speak louder than words in this regard.

As with western partners complicit in Saudi Arabia's lack of accountability, the ANC's leaders will have to reckon with its own foreign policy in the face of the persecution and death of activists fighting for their basic human rights – much like many of them did themselves as activists standing up to a brutal state to attain their rights and end a system of repression called apartheid.

- Lyndal Rowlands works in United Nations advocacy for CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and is a former UN Correspondent. Masana Ndinga-Kanga is CIVICUS' Crisis Response Fund Coordinator and Advocacy Officer for the Middle East/North Africa region

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