SA scolded after Dalai Lama spat
South Africa’s human rights values were seemingly compromised to toe China’s line on the Dalai Lama, writes Peter Fabricius.
South Africa has plausibly been accused of betraying its own human rights values by barring the Dalai Lama entry to South Africa to please China.
Less plausibly, some criticised it last June for voting at the UN against the rights of gay people, to please another one of its Brics partners, Russia.
And South Africa has also been scolded quite frequently for not defending African gays against their generally homophobic governments. But, to give credit where it’s due, South Africa parted company with all of those other countries last month to vote for an important resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which strengthened UN protection of LGBTI people against discrimination and violence.
Resolution L27 requested the new UN human rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to update a report written by his predecessor, South Africa’s Navi Pillay, in 2011 on “Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity”.
The council asked Al-Hussein to report on practical ways the international community could overcome such violence and discrimination. The resolution was carried by a vote of 25 in favour, 14 against and seven abstentions. South Africa was the only African country to support it. Most other African governments voted against, as did Russia. Some abstained, as did China. South Africa had kept the gay and human rights activists guessing up to the last moment about how it would vote on Resolution L27.
In the end, Abdul Minty, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, stated unequivocally that the resolution “is in sync with our national values shaped on our own history and experience of discrimination”.
The rights advocates had been uncertain, though, because of the way South Africa had voted on another resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in June. Pretoria supported a Russian move to prevent some enlightened countries led by Uruguay amending a resolution on protection of the family, by defining the family to include ones headed by same-sex couples.
Government officials insisted that was merely a tactical vote. They said if the Uruguayan amendment had been debated, Saudi Arabia would have submitted a counter-amendment explicitly and narrowly defining the family as an entity headed by a man and a woman.
So it was better to leave the family undefined, until an explicit debate could be held later at the UN on the substance of how “family” should be defined.
Most human rights activists dismiss this explanation as disingenuous, believing that Pretoria ducked its responsibility to protect gay-couple headed families.
This was just the latest oscillation in South Africa’s foreign policy stance on gay rights. Before 2011 it had attracted considerable criticism from rights advocates for not supporting UN moves to uphold gay rights. Most notoriously it had said that extending the usual human rights protections to include gays would “demean” the victims of racial discrimination and dilute their protection.
Then in 2011 South Africa appeared to do a complete about-face by sponsoring a landmark resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, the first resolution anywhere in the UN which explicitly extended the organisation’s traditional human rights protections to include suffering violence or discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
It did so in the face of immense resistance from its fellow Africans in particular. Resolution L27, adopted last month, was a follow-up to that 2011 resolution sponsored by South Africa.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.