SA’s new foreign policy agenda must embrace human rights


Last week I read in the Mail & Guardian that International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has assembled a team of experts to review South Africa’s foreign policy. The story goes on to say that the team has been given a mandate “to move South Africa’s foreign affairs approach from a focus on continental peace and security towards economic diplomacy”.

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When the ANC took power in 1994, the country’s foreign policy favoured a visionary and principled path “through which the ANC would apply its human rights and state morality traditions”.

This was affirmed by Nelson Mandela’s 1993 article, which he penned for Foreign Affairs magazine, arguing that “issues of human rights are central to international relations and an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental” space.

Mandela always spoke out against injustices, including those perpetrated by Africa’s strongmen such as former president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Nigeria’s former military ruler, Sani Abacha. Mandela’s principled approach often put him on a collision course with their governments. Having suffered and witnessed terrible injustice himself, he was driven by his desire to uphold human dignity and the right to equality and access to justice.

In its 2011 foreign policy white paper, titled Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu, South Africa claimed “to promote its national interest in a complex and fast-changing world” by achieving “a better life for its people both at home and in a regional and continental context”.

Be that as it may, South Africa’s foreign policy failures have been glaring in recent years. The country’s voice has been conspicuously absent in situations where it would have mattered, thereby failing millions of people who have been caught between the warring political leaders on the continent and beyond.

When the world was mourning the death of Mandela in December 2013, a war broke out in Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan. The failure of leadership from both President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar and their inability to handle their political differences had disastrous consequences. In December last year, as the country’s armed conflict entered its fifth year, Amnesty International reported that tens of thousands of people had been killed, thousands more subjected to sexual violence, and close to four million displaced since the conflict began.

South Africa made an early intervention in 2014, with the appointment of the then deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, as then president Jacob Zuma’s envoy to mediate in the conflict. But confusion crept in because Ramaphosa was not designated as a representative of the country but of the ruling ANC party. His involvement was short-lived and had no apparent effect.

The failures continued in June 2015, when fugitive from international justice Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was allowed to enter the country to attend the African Union Summit and then leave. This was despite warrants of arrest by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for egregious human rights abuses. South Africa actually aided al-Bashir to evade international justice, even though its obligations were clearly communicated by the ICC in the months before al-Bashir’s visit.

South Africa then announced its withdrawal from the ICC, in effect shunning victims of human rights violations worldwide. In situations such as Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, the hope for real justice lies in the ICC rather than in their home countries, where national justice systems have collapsed.

As the team charged with reviewing South Africa’s foreign policy begins its diagnostic work, it must keep in mind the founding principles of the country’s post-apartheid foreign policy agenda, namely dignity and human rights. Any new foreign policy agenda for South Africa must be based on human rights principles. This is precisely because development and human rights go together. Any development without respect for human rights will undermine the very principles that Nelson Mandela held dear.

Robert Shivambu is a media manager at Amnesty International. These are his own views

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Robert Shivambu
Robert Shivambu
Robert Shivambu is a journalist and international relations scholar. He holds two postgraduate degrees in Journalism and International Relations from the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of the Witwatersrand respectively. He has covered Africa as a journalist for eNCA and talk radio Power98.7.

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