Anyone who expected Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to tackle gay rights does not understand SA’s human rights position, says Peter Fabricius.
The government has a complicated attitude to homosexual rights. Its tepid response to the adoption of Uganda’s ugly homophobic law last week was not just about timidity in avoiding offence to an important African ally.
This week Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane provided some context, by default, in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Uganda’s anti-gay law had been the most recent burning human rights issue in South Africa. But anyone who expected that the minister would tackle – or even mention – gay rights does not understand South Africa’s human rights position.
Like every minister or deputy minister addressing the council’s opening session before her, she used the podium to focus instead on explaining her government’s fundamental ideological position on human rights. And that is that all human rights, including socio-economic rights and the right to development, are equal.
These rights are in no way inferior to the more political and civil rights, which are usually emphasised by Western powers. “That is why South Africa believes that there can be no hierarchy of rights.”
The one civil right she mentioned was the right to protection against racism.
Ironically, though, it was in that same chamber three years ago that South Africa’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Jerry Matjila, proposed the very first resolution ever adopted by any UN body affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The resolution called on the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to draw up the first report on challenges faced by gay people worldwide.
South Africa’s resolution was adopted by 23 to 19 with three abstentions. The only other African state to support it was Mauritius. All Muslim states opposed it. It was a brave stand on the equality principles enshrined in South Africa’s constitution and it cost South Africa a lot of sympathy from its African and Arab allies.
Its genesis, though, was rather tortured. It had begun a few years before with South Africa opposing a similar initiative in the UN General Assembly so as not to offend its fellow Africans and with Matjila himself sharply criticising a move in Geneva to bring gay people under the wider protection of the 2001 Durban Declaration “against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”.
Matjila complained that adding sexual orientation to the categories of people who should be protected against discrimination would “demean” the victims of racism and dilute their protection.
The resolution which Matjila later championed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2011, affirming gay rights and protection, was partly designed, at least initially, to give gays their own protective mechanism, to avoid “dilution”.
The suspicion that the fight against racism was being diluted in this way slotted into Pretoria’s wider sense that Western powers were using human rights as a weapon to bash their enemies, including by “regime change”.
It was probably not coincidental that at the time much Western ire was focused on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a conspicuous homophobe.
In the more conspiratorial corners of the government’s psyche, the West’s interest in protecting gays and in getting rid of Mugabe probably became associated.
Certainly the minister beat the drum against regime change in her Geneva speech this week, stating emphatically that “we cannot be tolerant to regime changes under any circumstances”.
South Africa’s insistence on the equality of the socio-economic rights, including the right to development, with the more conventional political and civil rights, has evidently been a way of deflecting Western criticism of the abuses of political and civil rights in places like Zimbabwe, Libya and Syria.
Or even turning the criticism back on the West, by blaming it for underdevelopment through its failure to deliver on its development aid promises or its restrictive trade policies.
In this great struggle against neo-colonialism, the rights of gay Ugandans are somewhat incidental.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.