University of Cape Town: SA’s UN voting record set the stage for its position on Ukraine

We have moved far from Nelson Mandela’s vision of a foreign policy that puts human rights at its heart. South Africa has repeatedly shown itself to be strong on talk but weak on delivery when it comes to taking a stand at the United Nations, writes University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD graduate Kate Dent.

In 1993, Nelson Mandela asserted that “South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations”.

South Africa has moved far from that commitment when it comes to non-binding, albeit politically consequential, United Nations resolutions.

The South African government’s first concern in framing its foreign policy at the United Nations has been its relationship with the African continent and prioritising its economic interests with its BRICS partner nations. The state has been careful to maintain the rhetoric of commitment to human rights and international frameworks for peace and has shown it will vote on the side of human rights when the issue is presented in the abstract. But when a resolution put forward is country-specific, South Africa has repeatedly abstained (with the exception of resolutions against Israel).

When South Africa has shown a willingness to vote “yes”, it has often only been after South Africa’s insistence that the language of the resolution be significantly watered down.

Its foreign policy has been, effectively, one of undermining human rights. Favouring regional quiet diplomacy, African solidarity and African solutions for African problems, its positions have been premised (at least as far as its public-facing expression) on territorial integrity and respect for state sovereignty.

Beginning with former president Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s refusal to condemn country-specific human rights abuses has been defended on the grounds of a position of “anti-imperialism”, with South Africa joining the African bloc in shows of contempt for the “West”. It has cited the West’s inconsistent human rights condemnations as being selective and disproportionately Africa-focused. In this space, South Africa has called, as it did in its 1 March speech at the General Assembly, for a recomposition of the Security Council.

In the Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly on the Ukraine crisis, South Africa failed to condemn Russian aggression and its invasion of Ukraine. The two speeches by ambassador Mathu Joyini somehow seemed to say all the right things, yet failed to stand up for what is right. At best, the framing of the speeches could be described as contrived neutrality.

South Africa called for a diplomatic solution that should consider the security concerns of both sides. Action by the General Assembly, said Joyini, should not aggravate conflict, but should provide a platform for “parties to engage with the spirit of compromise”.

This came on the heels of Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor reportedly getting herself into trouble for her 24 February statement which called for Russia to immediately withdraw from Ukraine, and South Africa’s subsequent walk-back from that position.

The ambassador’s speeches and the concern within the government about the Department of International Relations and Cooperation statement signalled that South Africa would, and in the end did, abstain from voting on the General Assembly resolution that deplored “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine”.

It is not the first time South Africa has managed to express a plausible-sounding rationale for a position, but has ended up taking a stance that has been criticised for undermining human rights. Our voting record at the UN did not give confidence that South Africa would choose anything other than abstention this time.

In 2007, South Africa challenged a General Assembly draft resolution condemning ethnic cleansing and rape as a tactic of war. In the discussions, South Africa argued that the resolution seemed to create two categories of rape, ie, suggesting that rape by the military is more despicable than rape by civilians. The vote should be seen in the context that the resolution was a US initiative that stemmed from conditions in Darfur in South Sudan. South Africa’s unwillingness to be drawn into criticism of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was also evident in its opposition to a draft Security Council resolution proposing sanctions against the country. South Africa moreover rejected a draft Security Council resolution to sanction combatants who attacked civilians — a resolution specifically aimed at Sudan.
In 2005, South Africa prevented any discussion of human rights in Zimbabwe at the UN Human Rights Council. As president of the UN Security Council in 2007, South Africa argued against discussing political violence in Zimbabwe in the Security Council, citing a view that conditions in Zimbabwe were not a threat to international peace and security. In opposing the Security Council draft resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2008, South Africa argued that it was a regional matter that should be handled by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union (AU).
South Africa abstained from a General Assembly Resolution condemning human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2014, on the basis that the resolution called for the Korean leadership to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and that this would politicise the ICC.
South Africa joined other states from the Africa bloc in abstaining from HRC Resolution 35/27 that condemned human rights abuses in Belarus in 2017. This must be seen in the context of the bilateral partnership in trade and agriculture between South Africa and Belarus, strengthened by the 2014 visit by a Belarus delegation to South Africa. Significantly, that meeting discussed cooperation with each other in international organisations.
Moreover, South Africa has refused to take a stand on human rights abuses in Burundi (2016), Syria (2015, 2016, 2018) and Iran (2015, 2016).
In the Security Council discussion on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in 2011, South Africa stated that international actors must “fully respect the will, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country concerned”. South Africa expressed concern that the interventions proposed might permit interventions that were aimed at regime change. South Africa did, however, ultimately vote for a resolution that introduced a no-fly zone and authorised all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya. This was a surprising departure from the AU’s stance of non-intervention.
South Africa voted “yes” to the Russia co-sponsored Resolution 36/10 that prevents individual states from imposing sanctions on another state as a coercive tool, because of the harm that such actions may cause the citizens of a country. South Africa has consistently voted in favour of this resolution because it is seen in the context of sanctions against Cuba. The resolution was adopted in 2017.
On the 2015 Human Rights Council Resolution 30/15, “Human Rights and the Preventing and Countering of Violent Extremism”, South Africa was one of three states to vote against the resolution, along with Russia and Venezuela. The vote came a month after The Economist labelled South Africa’s foreign policy “clueless and immoral”. In explaining its vote at the Human Rights Council (HRC), South Africa stated that the core group failed to accept proposals to make a distinction between violent extremism and legitimate struggles by national liberation movements for self-determination and statehood. “We cannot afford to associate such noble causes with the scourges of extremism, violent extremism and terrorism, and as such is a supreme insult to South Africa’s history.”
On the 2016 UN HRC Resolution 31/37, which was aimed at the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests, South Africa stated that it was fully supportive of the exercise of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, but nevertheless abstained, offering no reason for the fence-sitting. It may be notable that China and Russia tried unsuccessfully to dilute the resolution through multiple amendments.
In 2016, South Africa abstained from voting on UN HRC Resolution 32/2, which was aimed at protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, apparently in the wake of the ire the country had drawn from other African nations in 2011 when South Africa first tabled a resolution before the HRC to investigate and document discriminatory laws, practices and acts of violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all regions of the world. This was the HRC’s first resolution dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity.
South Africa voted alongside Russia and China against a 2016 HRC Resolution 32/51 that aimed to protect civil society actors who might be targeted by authoritarian governments wishing to suppress freedom of expression. South Africa offered the rationale that the country’s Constitution ensures freedoms to civil society actors, and there was no clampdown on civil society in South Africa, so there was no reason to vote in favour of the resolution. Only seven states voted against the resolution.
Continuing its record of not taking a stance, South Africa abstained from a 2017 General Assembly resolution on the situation on human rights in Myanmar (Resolution A/C.3/72/L.48) that condemned the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. BRICS partners Russia and China (with large economic investments in gas and oil pipelines and economic corridors in Rakhine) voted against the resolution. India abstained. However, in 2018 and again in 2019 South Africa reversed its stance on Myanmar and the Rohingya, voting in favour of the resolution. Signalling perhaps that South Africa was returning to Mandela’s foreign policy vision, South Africa also voted “yes” to a 2021 General Assembly Resolution A75/251 on the responsibility to protect, and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
But what of South Africa’s voting history pertaining specifically to Ukraine?

On General Assembly Resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine which followed the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, South Africa abstained, holding that such action would escalate the tension and would not contribute to a peaceful resolution.
On a 2016 Human Rights Council Resolution 32/29, which was aimed at cooperation and technical assistance to Ukraine in the field of human rights, South Africa also abstained. This resolution, “acknowledging the further need for such assistance with due regard to the commitment of the government of Ukraine to promote and protect human rights on all its territory”, tasked the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights with monitoring and assessing the situation of human rights in Ukraine.
South Africa abstained on the 2021 General Assembly Resolution 75/29 relating to the problem of the militarisation “of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov”, and condemned the ongoing occupation and militarisation of Ukrainian territory by the Russian Federation.
These positions are a betrayal of the country’s commitment to human rights in favour of a political and economic calculus to not upset Russia.

It has become the tactic of South Africa to voice hollow commitments, as in its statement on the Ukraine matter, to “international law, including humanitarian law and human rights law, as well as the principles of the UN Charter, including sovereignty and territorial integrity”, but then to raise technical objections when resolutions are proposed. Over time, among these have been arguments that the language is too hostile or divisive; there hasn’t been enough discussion; it’s the wrong forum to be raising the issue; South Africa takes issue with the expert chosen to observe human rights abuses; a working group should be initiated and nothing should proceed until that group has made its decisions; there is no consensus as to the meaning of a right; and so on and so on.

It bears noting that South Africa repeatedly tries to justify its refusal to take a principled stance against egregious human rights abuses by arguing the importance of territorial integrity and the primacy of sovereignty. The country voted in favour of a 2021 resolution on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination. By voting “yes” to this, South Africa affirmed:

“purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations concerning the strict observance of the principles of sovereign equality, political independence, the territorial integrity of states, the self-determination of peoples, the non-use of force or threat of use of force in international relations and non-interference in affairs within the domestic jurisdiction of states. Reaffirming also that, by virtue of the principle of self-determination, all peoples have the right to determine freely their political status and to pursue freely their economic, social and cultural development, and that every state has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.”

Is this not exactly what Ukraine is fighting for? South Africa voted “yes” when this was framed in the abstract. But we lack the strength to back it up when the bombs are falling.

The ANC claims historic loyalty to Russia, remembering that it was Russia that came to its aid in the fight against apartheid. Russia was there for us. So where are we now? Shouldn’t we as a nation know, more than most, what it feels like to be oppressed and dominated, fighting for our political and civil freedoms and the right to exist? Shouldn’t we remember what it felt like to have other nations respond to that pain with indifference as they weighed their own economic interests?

Shouldn’t that very history and our national character forged from that history compel us to be the champion of human rights?

Russia did indeed come to the aid of the ANC in its fight. But in the fight against what? In the fight for what? Shouldn’t we be leading the international outrage when Russia has been actively working to destroy democracy itself?

Human rights are no longer the determinative guide in South Africa’s foreign policy. Our history of voting at the United Nations shows that we are not able to stand for principle.

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