A response to David Mabuza: No way human rights and sovereignty can be two sides of the same coin

David Mabuza. Picture: Tebogo Letsie
David Mabuza. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

In political theory sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity.

This entails the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside.

The idea of sovereignty in the context of what appears a binding relationship between various governing bodies should in real terms mean something different.

This must be so if such relationships are supposedly formed and based on common values and principles.

These values must be based on the extent to which the parties to these relationships are prepared firstly to agree to clearly defined common values and secondly, on the extent to which they are prepared to tolerate each other in relation to those values.

One cannot imagine being good friends with a drunkard when you are teetotaler.

The saying that birds of a feather flock together may find application in such a situation.

The African problem is less about sovereignty and human rights and more about looting.

The true reason why many African countries do not want to have a Bill of Rights is because the leaders do not want to be held accountable for the abuses they commit against their citizens.

The leaders want to define the nature and the scope of the rights their citizens must have to dictate the terms of the relationship citizens have with their governments.

Sovereignty becomes the lame excuse.

When the world came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those participating must have had in mind the common value of the upholding, respecting and fulfilling of human rights. Human rights are universal because humanity is universal.

Why would governing bodies the world over agree to the set of values of upholding human rights whilst agreeing to this thing called sovereignty which inherently undermines the upholding of human rights.

The United Nations, which is the owner of the Universal Declaration, has never truly demonstrated that the declaration truly represents the common will and value of the family of nations to uphold human rights.

Despite the noise we hear so frequently, the reality is that talk of human rights even at United Nations level is but cheap talk.

If it was real talk, the peoples of Palestine, the Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and many other peoples would live in relative peace.

It was this very principle of sovereignty which enabled and allowed the mighty governments to test their weapons of war on the poor, defenceless and innocent on the receiving end of gross violations of their human rights.

The United Nations and its members who claim to be angelic when they pronounce on gross human rights violations pick and choose when and how to intervene when there are gross human rights violations.

This approach is fortified by what each state or government adopts as its foreign policy.

In the case of South Africa, our foreign policy involves not interfering in the affairs of others.

But we come from a struggle which made various other countries and their peoples to undermine the sovereignty of the apartheid state and government in pursuit of our freedom.

The fact that we relied on the armed struggle launched from foreign soil and international solidarity means that we consciously encouraged other countries to undermine the sovereignty of the apartheid state.

At that stage we wanted and demanded of other states and bodies to become the police state of the apartheid state and to impose sanctions as a measure to force it to collapse because of its gross human rights violations.

It therefore becomes an absurdity today when we rely on the principle of sovereignty to avoid helping in the same way others helped us to enjoy our human rights.

The apartheid state used the same illogical reasoning to protest what it regarded as interference in its internal affairs.

There is just no way that human rights and sovereignty can be two sides of the same coin in countries which do not uphold human rights.

It is just an impracticality and an absurdity.

Human rights are specially protected through an instrument called a Bill of Rights.

Every nation makes a choice whether to have this instrument as part of their constitution or not.

Once a nation chooses not to have the instrument called the Bill of Rights as part of their constitution, there cannot be any talk of human rights.

Equally, any nation which has this instrument but makes provision for the rights to be violated cannot claim to be upholding human rights.

Human rights by their nature limit state sovereignty. They are meant to ensure that a state cannot do as it pleases with its citizens and gives the power to citizens to prevail over the state’s use of its power through various redress mechanisms including independent courts of law.

The great ideas espoused in the Organisation of African Unity Charter were compromised by this thing called sovereignty.

The parties to the Charter could not hold each other accountable for what they agreed on for fear of isolation.

When various states come together and claim to work together based on shared values, we must then question as to what these values are.

What kind of friends are we, if we can hardly enforce our shared values.

Must those adversely affected truly believe that we mean any good when we are quiet in the face of their adversity?

Should we be ashamed to tell our friends that they are not living up our agreed and shared values and must we depend on their mood swings on the type of intervention we must engage in when human rights are violated?

It is interesting that the sovereignty of various other countries was violated by the mighty and powerful in the world displaying their military prowess to advance their nefarious agendas.

Their military interventions were on its own a gross violation of both the principle of sovereignty and human rights.

They left a trail of irreparable destruction and the United Nations has not lifted a finger.

South Africa correctly believes in diplomacy to resolve conflict and disputes.

It also correctly argues that it is not its job to be a police officer of other states.

But is that really the point or is the point not the fact that South Africa must also clearly define its own role relative to what it stands for in relation to human rights.

Does South Africa, a beneficiary of undermining the apartheid pariah state’s sovereignty having any moral authority to argue that the sovereignty of other states which violate human rights must be respected.

South Africa supported the overthrow of the Libyan government through the instrumentality of the US bombings which dethroned Muammar Gadaffi.

The issue of state sovereignty did not feature at that stage.

We must recall that South Africa joined the brigade of those who rejected the neutrality of the International Criminal Court and initiated a process to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

That decision may have been correct having regard to the fact that the ICC is indeed selective on who it prosecutes.

But South Africa was also party to the AU decision that heads of states cannot be prosecuted thus giving them indemnity from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

South Africa has over many years deployed resources extensively on the continent to contribute to peace. This is commendable regardless of the cost pressures it puts on the country.

It is also commendable that South Africa has been extensively involved in brokering peace in various conflict areas on the continent.

However, that is not enough justification for its silence on ongoing gross violations on the continent and elsewhere.

Megaphone diplomacy may not work indeed but a principled stand must work.

Multilateralism must not be given an interpretation which renders states which are against the violation of rights complicit in human rights violations for fear of isolation.

The mistake we must not make though is to shift responsibility for the problems of the continent on South Africa.

The primary responsibility to resolve conflict must lie with the peoples of the affected countries.

South Africa, as with other countries which believe in democracy and the rule of law must play a supportive role.

But that supportive role must be based on principle.

One of the major fault lines has always been and remains the fact that the peoples of Africa are forever happy to support dictators and take up arms supplied by former colonial masters and bigoted leaders.

The fact that our own brothers and sisters from across the Limpopo river were not even prepared to go back home for a day to vote, instead opting to protest in our country compromises the moral authority of South Africa to intervene.

Of course, those who chastised the Deputy President of South Africa for keeping quiet on the situation in Uganda are the worst hypocrites who never lifted a finger when their powerful war monger friends dethroned governments and caused untold misery to innocent people.

The many peoples on the continent are worse off now after the war mongers unleased their weapons of war on their countries.

We owe it to our brothers and sisters on the continent to be united and vocal against human rights abuses wherever they occur.

Like we benefitted from the unity and vocal condemnation of apartheid, we must reciprocate to others in their moment of need.

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July 2020

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