South Africa’s decision to abstain on a United Nations General Assembly (GA) committee vote to condemn all human rights violations in Myanmar and call for an independent investigation is now drawing criticism from one of the top human rights groups in the world. South Africa was one of 26 countries to abstain while an overwhelming majority of countries voted in favour of the resolution in the GA’s human rights committee.
It called on the government of Myanmar to take all necessary measures to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice and to combat the incitement of hatred against the minority Rohingya Muslim population that has seen some 700 000 fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.
In an op-ed published on the SABC News website, Human Rights Watch says the vote undermines President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new dawn. Hundred and forty-two countries voted in favour of the resolution while countries including Russia, China and Zimbabwe joined a total of ten to vote against the text.
Human Rights Watch called it a missed opportunity for the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa to stand up for victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign.
“We were really surprised and disappointed and as a South African I was personally surprised and disappointed but as Human Rights Watch our concern is that this was an opportunity for SA to show that it stands behind human rights principles, in the case of the most appalling atrocity crimes against humanity which took place also in the context of systematic racial oppression which probably means they also constitute the crime of Apartheid. So for SA to sit on the side lines of that vote, I think was a really unfortunate failure,” said Acting Managing Director Nic Dawes
In August, an independent panel of the UN’s Human Right’s Council found that Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of the Rohingya community charging that this was done with genocidal intent. Senior UN officials, including the former High Commissioner for Human Rights have described the crackdown as ethnic cleansing, a charge Myanmar has denied. South Africa’s diplomats in New York have referred requests for an explanation of their abstention to Pretoria. Dawes says the country’s has an extraordinary opportunity.
“You have Russia and China that are on the one hand taking a line which is very supporting for example of Bashar al Assad in relation to Syria, protective of him. On the other hand you have Chinese willingness to condone effectively the behaviour of the Burmese leadership and the Burmese military and then you have Western powers that are absent, preoccupied or actually hostile to human rights, so you have the US for example continuing to support the Saudi war in Yemen with the many war crimes that are associated with that. So SA has an opportunity both within BRICS and on the global stage to use its influence to drive true human rights and democratic standards in a way that not only reflects SA’s principles but actually advance its effectiveness globally at a time when that kind of leadership is largely absent.”
The third committee’s decision will go to a final vote in a full sitting of the General Assembly next month. Dawes expressed their hope that South Africa will amend its vote. “We’ve seen many times at the UN that SA has stood for human rights, they’ve stood for human rights on LGBT issues, they’ve stood for human rights in relation to Palestine, that currency that SA has gets debased when they’re seen to vote only on the basis on the interests of very powerful countries with whom they have economic or other diplomatic relationships but its’ not completely debased and so yes, I’m hopeful and President Ramaphosa has explicitly stated that these will be the guiding lights of his approach so he needs to stand by that. He’s created an opportunity for all of us as South Africans and the global community to hold him accountable in relation to human rights principles.”
Pretoria is now facing additional scrutiny particularly as it prepares to start its two-year term on the Security Council in January. “What I hope for is that this was a hangover from a way of doing business that didn’t really reflect SA’s value. Mandela, when he was president, was very explicit that SA’s foreign policy would be guided by human rights principles, by the values that are actually embodied in SA’s Constitution and Bill of Rights. So if SA is going to conduct itself on the Security Council in a way that is guided by those principles, then this was clearly not an indication of doing that.”
Several requests for an explanation of vote from officials in the Department of International Relations in Pretoria have yielded no formal response.