A fisherman paddles his boat past destroyed buildings on the coast of the port city of Hodeida, Yemen. Picture: Hani Mohammed/AP
Since assuming her position as Minister of International Relations and Cooperation in February this year, Lindiwe Sisulu has consistently pronounced on the centrality of human rights to South Africa’s foreign policy. In May 2018, in her departmental budget speech to the National Assembly, she said: “We continue to fight against injustice because we have to. We, who have suffered so much, can ill-afford suffering in any part of the world." 

This approach is a refreshing change from the years of negligence by the previous administration who punted the objective of economic diplomacy above other tenets of South Africa’s foreign policy. Sisulu’s attempts to resurrect South Africa’s credibility in international fora is, however, met with deep-seated apathy amongst some officials, who have contributed to the “policy positions” of abstentions at the United Nations Human Rights Council that contradict her drive for a stronger humanitarian impetus. 

Of recent contention has been the abstentions by South Africa in Geneva on resolutions regarding the situation in Eastern Ghouta (Syria), the extension of a mandate of an investigation panel on Yemen, and on the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In refraining from taking firm positions on these pertinent human rights causes, South Africa relinquishes its moral authority and tacitly allows the suffering of human beings in other parts of the world.

Last week at a media briefing, Sisulu faced questions over Saudi Arabia’s interests in purchasing a stake in the State-Owned Enterprise (SOE), Denel. As the Minister confirmed the proposal, she cautioned that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), which was established to monitor arms sales and ensure compliance with human rights regulations, would consider the merits thereof. 

Minister Sisulu’s statement that South Africa "does not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights,” appears to contradict the reports issued by the NCACC on recent sales for the annual periods of 2016 and 2017. 

Of particular concern has been the high rate of sales to countries who currently form part of the Saudi-led coalition embroiled in a conflict of devastating humanitarian consequences in Yemen. The reports indicate sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) amounting to more than US$228 million, in addition to the sales to other coalition members, including the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Arab Republic of Egypt.

This suggests a willingness by the NCACC to overlook international reports by the United Nations and credible human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Medicins Sans Frontieres, revealing the disproportionate rate of civilian deaths at the hands of the coalition. Despite the clear evidence of critical violations of international human rights law by members of the coalition, the flow of weapons has continued unabated. 

The justification that these exports would bring the much-needed economic boost to the defence industry has little credence when the price for such deals is human life. 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth-largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017. 

Evidence of the use of South African weapons in Yemen first emerged in 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II drone that had been shot down. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.

In August 2018, following a brutal attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida, further evidence emerged of munition fragments that resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), indicating a direct link between South African sales and the killing of innocent civilians.

On the question of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine state in Myanmar, Minister Sisulu suggested that peace envoys Mr Roelf Meyer and former Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim were expected to advise government following their missions to many of these conflict-ridden countries, including Myanmar. 

The Minister did not make reference to the recent UN Human Rights Council report, released in August 2018, which declares that the upsurge of ethnic violence in Rakhine state in 2017 constituted genocide of Rohingya Muslims. The Minister also failed to recognise South Africa’s reckless move in authorising the sale and export of military-grade electronic equipment to Myanmar, which would assist in the launching of missiles. 

When questioned by the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD), Minister Radebe, in his capacity as chairperson of the NCACC indicated that at the time of the sale in 2017, Myanmar was stable – this too was an incorrect and short-sighted assessment, as the situation in Rakhine state has been critical since 2012. 

Advocate Shabnam Mayet from Protect The Rohingya, an advocacy organisation based in Johannesburg advised that “The president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, Tun Khin, briefed DIRCO in 2012 on the prevailing situation in Myanmar and the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya by the Buddhist regime”. She added that “South Africa's position as a soft power on human rights should surely dictate its votes at the UNHRC. A history like South Africa's means that our foreign policy should always speak out in the face of apartheid and genocide both prevalent in Myanmar's new democracy.”

Minister Radebe has openly stated in his briefing to the JSCD in June 2018 that the NCACC was guided by the parameters set by the UN Security Council on whether there were sanctions or arms embargoes against particular countries, and that further guidance is provided on conflict zones within the context of South Africa’s national interests.  He also added that the track record of certain countries in terms of human rights was also looked at, including the issue of regional dynamics. In the same briefing, Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa- Nqakula said that if there was a record of a country having committed human rights violations then permits would be denied. 

The structure of the NCACC was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants in order to ensure the highest levels of accountability. However, the committee seems to have been less than serious in its responsibilities in recent years, thus creating loopholes for unchecked weapons’ transfers. The lack of transparency and delays in reports, as well as the absence of follow-up on promised investigations, mires the Committee’s work.

By Minister Sisulu’s own admission, the Committee, of which she is a member, has not been able to reach a quorum for monthly meetings. Previous attempts by Minister Jeff Radebe to deflect questions on the sale of weapons to countries complicit in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Yemen, Myanmar and elsewhere are unacceptable. The South African public have the right to know how these decisions have been taken, and why evidence of violations have gone unchecked. 

* Zeenat Adam is a former South African diplomat and is currently a freelance writer and political consultant in South Africa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.