On 12 January 2007, just a few days after taking its seat for the first time on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, South Africa voted against a resolution calling on Myanmar's government to cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions.
Pretoria's vote against human rights shocked many South Africans and foreign observers who felt it had betrayed the human rights-first foreign policy legacy of Nelson Mandela. The government offered several rather tortured justifications for its surprising vote.
It argued essentially that human rights issues should be dealt with by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In private, officials admitted they were objecting to Western powers 'throwing their weight around' by bringing up the issue at the Security Council. The Myanmar decision became something of an emblem of the African National Congress government's ambivalent foreign policy on human rights.
Last week, 11 years later, South Africa abstained from a similar resolution before the UN General Assembly's Third Committee (which deals with human rights and humanitarian issues). The resolution condemned the Myanmar military for its atrocities against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority, and demanded an independent investigation into these human rights abuses.
A majority of 142 nations backed the resolution. Only 10 voted against and 26 abstained. The resolution will go to the full General Assembly for a vote next month.
South African human rights champions were again dismayed by Pretoria's non-vote on Myanmar last week
South African human rights champions were again dismayed by Pretoria's non-vote. Muslims in particular felt betrayed. Was moving incrementally from a nay to an abstention the best the Ramaphosa administration could do to strengthen human rights foreign policy compared to the previous Zuma administration?
Many human rights advocates had expected more. President Cyril Ramaphosa had indicated as much when he told senior South African diplomats earlier this year that the country's foreign policy had to be aligned more with its constitutional values. At the UN General Assembly in September, Ramaphosa publicly declared his commitment to the rule of law, constitutionalism and the other values Mandela had held dear.
The hope for a more robust policy on gross human rights abuses such as those in Myanmar have also been raised as South Africa prepares to take its seat on the Security Council for the third time on 1 January 2019. But the current administration seemed to have gone backwards.
During the last bout of intense violence in Myanmar in September 2017, the Zuma administration at least expressed its 'deep concern' for the suffering of the Rohingya and urged 'all parties to halt the violence'. Yet neither Ramaphosa nor his international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu said a word when on 27 August 2018 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released the results of a fact-finding mission into the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Rakhine State, north-west Myanmar.
Diplomats who vote in the UN and other international organisations were recalled to Pretoria
The report concluded that the 'gross human rights violations' amounted to 'the gravest crime under international law'. Much of the world was quick to respond to the report and denounce the government or military of Myanmar, but Africa said very little and South Africa said nothing.
In her 2018 budget speech, Sisulu had said her department would advocate a 'cautious approach on country-specific issues, in matters of human rights, preferring to promote dialogue in resolving disputes'. That was the standard response to human rights issues abroad under the Zuma administration and even before.
And then yesterday, 22 November, Sisulu broadly hinted that South Africa would reverse its controversial vote on Myanmar in the Third Committee. First she forthrightly expressed 'deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar' and called 'for an end to the human suffering experienced by the Rohingya people'.
'South Africa has consistently condemned human rights violations in Myanmar, including at the recent Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers meeting held in Durban,' she said.
Sisulu said that as part of the review of South Africa's foreign policy, she was 'considering guidelines that will inform South Africa's voting in various multilateral fora as South Africa prepares to assume its non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for the period 2019-2020.'
SA will join the Security Council with a more constitutionally aligned human rights foreign policy
'These guidelines will also apply in other key political and technical agencies such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague.'
The guidelines had been discussed extensively at the recent meeting in Pretoria of South Africa's ambassadors abroad, Sisulu said. They were 'underpinned by the values and principles of South Africa's constitution and its national interests'.
The statement said Sisulu would shortly give a 'voting directive' to South Africa's diplomats in New York before the Myanmar resolution came up for a vote in the General Assembly next month. That directive would 'supersede' South Africa's vote on Myanmar in the Third Committee. Sisulu's spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya confirmed to ISS Today that South Africa would indeed change its position and vote in favour of the resolution next month.
Sisulu did doff her cap to the prevailing human rights policy when she said, 'South Africa remains on guard at all times to ensure that votes on country-specific human rights resolutions are not used to engage in regime changes and destabilise countries.'
However Mabaya said the 'old principle' of automatically voting against country-specific human rights policies to guard against regime change was now obsolete. Henceforth the minister and her senior officials would review every such vote before it was cast.
All South African diplomats responsible for voting in the UN and other international organisations were recalled to Pretoria for a briefing on the new approach. On Myanmar specifically, apart from changing its vote, Sisulu tasked her diplomats to raise Pretoria's concerns directly with the Myanmar government, and to prepare a proposal on how South Africa could monitor what was happening there, Mabaya said.
The full details of the new policy remain to be seen. But it looks as though South Africa will take its seat on the Security Council in January with a human rights foreign policy that will indeed be more expressive of the country's constitutional values and much easier to explain to the nation and the world.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant and Zachary Donnenfeld, Senior Researcher, ISS