ANC’s human rights legacy lies in tatters

For a political party that draws so much capital from its struggle against apartheid, the ANC appears to have very quickly forgotten why it played such a key role in establishing a permanent international court to try the worst crimes that the human imagination can conjure.

It was the memory of the brute injustices of apartheid, and the desire to ensure that no one would ever have to experience it again, that informed the party’s foreign policy as it prepared to enter into government.

An article written by Nelson Mandela in 1994 points to the direct links between the fight against apartheid and South Africa’s new foreign policy stance. The country’s apartheid policy had caused it to become an isolated pariah on the world stage, and something completely new was needed.

“The African National Congress believes that the charting of a new foreign policy for South Africa is a key element in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous country. Apartheid corroded the very essence of life in South Africa,” Mandela wrote.

“This is why the country’s emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people — irrespective of race, colour, creed, religion or sex — can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This vision cannot be realised until South Africa can again participate fully in world affairs,” he said.

The pillars of the new foreign policy were to be:

  • That issues of human rights are central to international relations and to an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental;
  • That just and lasting solutions to the problems of humankind can only come about through the promotion of democracy worldwide;
  • That considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations;
  • That peace is the goal for which all nations should strive and where this breaks down, internationally agreed-on and nonviolent mechanisms, including effective arms control regimes, must be employed;
  • That the concerns and interests of African continent should be reflected in our foreign policy choices; and
  • That economic development depends on growing regional and international economic co-operation in an interdependent world.

South Africa was given the opportunity to test its new stance when the International Criminal Court (ICC) was formed. The ICC continues to suffer from a credibility problem because of the absence of some of the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States and China, and they almost succeeded in crushing it before it was born.

South African diplomats were instrumental in stymying the efforts of George W Bush’s administration to push African nations into signing bilateral agreements that would have rerouted US personnel wanted by the ICC back to the US instead.

According to Human Rights Watch: “The extradition treaty (Article 18) prohibits the RSA from surrendering US military personnel to third states and international tribunals without US consent. It would appear that article 18 has a far narrower sphere of operation than a regular bilateral agreement: it would only hamper the South African government’s ability to surrender a US national to the ICC, if that US national was initially extradited by the US to RSA.”

At a conference of African institutions promoting and protecting human rights, Mandela declared: “We have sought to ensure that the ICC is guaranteed independence and bestowed with adequate powers. Our own continent has suffered enough horrors emanating from the inhumanity of human beings towards human beings. Who knows — many of these might not have occurred, or at least been minimised, had there been an effectively functioning international criminal court.”

South Africa has charted a unique path in the world since 1994. It has been seen as a champion of peace, international justice and human rights, yet also resistant to the Western consensus about who or what constitutes the pariah states.

We were warm friends with Cuba long before US President Barack Obama made it cool, and we were emphatically on the right side of the US-led war in 2003 long before the first Tomahawk missiles crashed into Baghdad.

We’ve been horrendously wrong too — the government’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa is a dark stain on the country’s collective conscience.

One thing that never changed was our material, concrete commitment to international justice, which was our membership of the ICC.

So, what changed this?

The ANC government is shot through with scandal. The presidency of Jacob Zuma is a calamity — so much so that powerful people in the party are in open revolt. The need to manage Zuma’s exit remains.

The decision to exit the ICC is nothing more than political opportunism on a grand scale, according to political analyst Ralph Mathekga.

“The reasons given don’t make sense,” he said. “South Africa was better off negotiating from within the ICC. It’s not enough to say that the US isn’t a part of the court. This is grandstanding on a massive scale, with serious human rights implications. They are trying to hide their own domestic ineptitude.”

The proponents of this decision may have counted on a lack of unity among opposition parties on the issue of the ICC in the hope of getting away with it, Mathekga said.

“If you look at the different stances of the opposition, they are not united [in support of the ICC],” he said. “They know the stance of the Economic Freedom Fighters on this and are seeking to exploit opposition divisions.”

The question remains: Will the ANC, or the portions not aligned to the “sovereignty extremists”, fight to rescue its hard-earned reputation for international justice? Or will this be another cherished institution destroyed by Zuma and his cronies?

Sipho Hlongwane is the Mail & Guardian’s special projects editor.

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