Improve South Africa's UN role

At the United Nations this month, the spotlight will be on South Africa as the new president of the Security Council for April.

At the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, South Africa will also take centre stage in April as one of the first countries to participate in the new Universal Periodic Review of its human-rights performance.

South Africa has a particular moral stature because it overcame apartheid.

Its commitment to human-rights issues in the post-apartheid environment should be commensurate with this global reputation.

The ruling party of my country, Mexico, built up a dismal human-rights record, while mechanically denouncing apartheid. Later, under President Vicente Fox, whom I served as foreign minister, efforts were made to clean up the police and end impunity for past abuses.

But the most dramatic turnaround came in foreign policy: we supported human-rights initiatives, backing UNHRC resolutions on countries such as Cuba, Uzbekistan and Egypt, and backed the International Criminal Court (ICC). We embraced the new Human Rights Council and occupied its first chair between 2006 and 2007.

Pretoria was an important ally in the creation of the ICC. But now nations supporting a new treaty to ban cluster munitions wonder why South Africa is not among them.

With the United States a tough opponent on this treaty, we need South Africa to stand among the treaty’s strongest proponents.

Foreign policy is a complex process. Any government must balance a variety of interests before it takes a position. But what possible South African interest was served by the decision in January 2007 to oppose a mild Security Council resolution condemning Burma for its massive human-rights abuses, and failing to criticise it for its brutal crackdown on monks’ protests in November? Supporters of human rights around the world were frankly stunned by South Africa’s vote at the UN Security Council.

This month at the Security Council, South African ambassador to the UN Dumisani Kumalo will face an array of challenges: the horrendous violence in Darfur; the appalling suffering of ordinary Somalis caused by the transitional government, Ethiopian forces and insurgents alike.

South Africa has taken a leading role in peace-keeping in Africa, and can do more today.

Jorge Castañeda served as Mexico’s foreign minister between 2000 and 2003; he is currently a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University and a member of the board of Human Rights Watch

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