/ 23 March 2022

African states that abstained on Russia vote fail to cover themselves in glory

Us Ukraine Russia Conflict
The threat of reduced international support for Ukraine could limit Kyiv’s options in the new year. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

On 2 March, the UN general assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It passed with 141 member states voting in favour, five against and 35 countries abstaining. UN secretary general António Guterres lauded the vote, saying that the general assembly’s position was “loud and clear” on the matter.

The message of African states however was muffled. Only 28 states voted to condemn Russia including Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria. Seventeen abstained from the vote, including South Africa — a country founded on strong human rights principles after suffering the injustice of apartheid from the white minority rulers. Eight did not record a vote. The abstentions were significant in number amounting to nearly one-third of the membership of the African Union. Eritrea, with a deplorable human rights record including constant arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of government critics, voted against the resolution. 

Abstentions are common in the playhouse of realpolitik, but there are other dynamics at work here. President Cyril Ramaphosa defended South Africa’s neutral stance on the grounds that, “in such cases”, a peaceful resolution should always be sought. Some states justified their abstentions by referencing the West’s hypocrisy: How is it that there is no accountability for the US-led invasion of Iraq on false pretences? How is it that the Israeli government imposes apartheid on Palestinians and there is no outrage from the West? How is it that Saudi Arabia can bomb civilians in Yemen and not only still be welcomed in the West’s halls of power but sold weapons by it? Why is it acceptable for the French government to insist that it will only leave Mali in its time and at its hour?  Some have pointed out, correctly, that the deaths of Africans in recent armed conflicts hardly drew as much outrage from the West as the war in Ukraine.

While those concerns are legitimate in their own terms, they do not justify treating the Russian aggression of Ukraine as a matter for the West alone. International law and principles, not the behaviour of the West, should set the standard for how we respond to human rights violations. The response to double standards by the West must be to challenge them, not copy them or walk away. Furthermore, the political, economic and social implications of Russian aggression demonstrate that the African continent is affected by it.   

The founding document of the UN, the UN Charter, pledges “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. It does so by prohibiting the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Yet adherence to those rules has steadily weakened over the more than 70 years since their adoption. In the name of the “War on Terror”, states have indulged in use of force wherever in the world their hunt of nonstate groups, with whom they deem themselves to be at war, has led. The result? An increased blurring of the lines between war and peace; a pattern of conflict across the world amounting to globalised warfare and a steady erosion of international law and the rules-based international system. Nowhere were such violations of the UN Charter clearer than in the US invasion of Iraq, on the unfounded grounds that there were weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of that invasion are still felt across Iraq and far beyond today. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is grave. It is an act of aggression. It is an international armed conflict, one of the few occasions since the US invasion of Iraq this century that is clearly an inter-state conflict. Russia’s actions are driving a daily expanding refugee crisis and have wrought a massive impact on the lives, safety and wellbeing of millions of civilians. Amnesty International has already found evidence pointing to attacks on civilians amounting to war crimes.

Further, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and the global response to it, has provoked a tsunami of military, economic and political consequences that will impact people around the world, including Africa, and affect most those already living in poverty. Prices of staple food, including grain, and oil are fast approaching or even surpassing levels not seen since the 2008 food and fuel crisis. 

Together, Russia and Ukraine account for almost a third of the world’s wheat exports with African nations among their largest purchasers. According to the WFP, Russia and Ukraine supply 100% of Eritrea’s supplies and 66% of Ethiopia’s. With both countries already facing humanitarian crises, due to armed conflict and drought, things are bound to get worse thanks to a war fought far from their shores. 

South Africa and other of the continent’s countries not as reliant on Russian or Ukrainian wheat will still see prices soar thanks to global market fluctuations. The rising price of oil will have a direct impact on the costs of energy for household and industrial use, increasing the price of transportation, electricity and goods. 

For the continent, already confronting the challenges of recovery from the pandemic which is painfully slow, increases in the price of food and energy will only worsen encroachment on the economic and social rights and dignity of its people. The devastating consequences of the Russian onslaught on Ukraine are thus beginning to be felt in places far away. 

Moreover, the war in Ukraine has security implications for the continent. According to some sources, Russia itself has military cooperation agreements with 20 African countries and counting. The Wagner Group, Russia’s infamous private security firm accused of human rights violations in the Central African Republic, is expanding its presence across the continent.

Russia-linked disinformation networks were also caught operating on Facebook and Instagram in Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. Without being held to account, Russia may double-down on such activities, contributing to instability, militarisation and human rights violations across Africa and beyond. 

Whatever goodwill Russia won, in a previous political incarnation, for its support of anti-colonial movements and the struggle against apartheid, does not change the reality that Russia’s actions against Ukraine are a violent attack on its people and a flagrant violation of the national sovereignty and integrity of a state. 

Yesterday’s gratitude doesn’t justify today’s impunity. President Vladimir Putin’s reference to the quasi-ideology of the Russian World (Russkiy Mir) and his repeated denial and rejection of the existence of Ukraine, directly reveals that territorial and political expansionist motives are behind the invasion. Russia’s security concerns about Nato expansion cannot serve as a legal or political basis for military aggression. 

No nation should turn its eyes away from the Russian aggression against Ukraine or suggest they ought to remain neutral in the face of such wanton destruction of a country and the massive suffering imposed on the population. There cannot be the pretence that there is neutrality in the face of massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law. 

By failing to provide global leadership at critical moments because of strong outrage over the West’s double standards, those African countries which abstained on March 2 are not covering themselves in glory. They are missing an opportunity to shape global events, influence geopolitics and indeed provide leadership at a time when few states are credibly and consistently exercising global leadership on human rights. 

They should be concerned at the kind of world and global system the Russian aggression and the violation of the rights of Ukrainians announces. They, like everyone else, should be concerned that there are others waiting in the wings to follow in Russia footsteps — would-be regional or global powers ready to build on Russia’s precedent. In an era of major scramble for Africa’s resources, from the heights of its mountains to the bottoms of its oceans, this is a precedent that augurs badly for the continent’s future. 

There is little doubt that, through its aggression, the Russian authorities are also seeking to usher in a new world order — sweeping away the systems built up at the end of World War II, the wave of decolonisation of the 1960s onwards and following the fall of the Berlin wall. But they seek to replace them with a system of power, not of rules; with an international order based on might and not rights.

Global unity in condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukrainians is the only way to protect humanity in Ukraine but also in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe or the DRC. It is also the only way to salvage and begin to rebuild what is left of the ineffective international structures and rules that should have prevented all these tragedies from occurring. Amnesty International will release its annual report on the State of the World’s Human Rights from Johannesburg on 29 March. The report will carry the most comprehensive human rights analysis covering about 159 countries, including Ukraine.