Syrian girls reacting after a government airstrike attack on their neighbourhood, in Aleppo. SA's human rights culture is hard to assess as we abstains on issues in Syria, Sri Lanka, Iran and North Korea, says the writer.

Human rights culture is hard to assess as we abstain on crucial issues in Syria, Sri Lanka, Iran and North Korea, says Peter Fabricius.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has just created a useful website – – which shows how different countries vote, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

HRW created the site partly because it said most people did not know how their governments voted on crucial human rights issues in far-away Geneva, and they should.

Examining South Africa’s voting record last month, the start of the year’s council session, is revealing and also depressingly familiar.

South Africa has just returned to the Human Rights Council – which has 47 rotating members – after an absence of several years, so it has been a while since anyone was able to clearly observe its human rights thinking.

What emerges is a picture of casting votes for political, rather than human rights, purposes, the tendency which bedevilled the old UN Human Rights Commission and which the new Human Rights Council was designed to change.

The result in South Africa’s case – and no doubt, many other cases if one were to examine them – is a lack of consistent principle in voting.

Of the nine resolutions passed so far, South Africa abstained on four, which criticised human rights violations in Syria, Sri Lanka, Iran and North Korea, and voted for five, which criticised Israel for various aspects of its occupation of Syrian Golan and the West Bank.

South Africa’s voting pattern reveals clearly that while it is deeply ambivalent about human rights abuses in what one may call non-Western countries, such ambivalence falls away when it comes to a country, Israel, which is a close Western ally.

The voting also reveals another inconsistency, to put it mildly.

When South Africa abstained from the resolution on Sri Lanka, officials in Pretoria explained it was to preserve South Africa’s neutrality in that conflict because ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had been appointed by President Jacob Zuma as his special envoy to that country and was already engaged in mediating between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil opponents.

South Africa, in this case, could not afford to take sides. Point taken. But how does Pretoria explain its abstentions on Syria, Iran and North Korea? Human Rights Watch was particularly appalled by South Africa’s refusal to support the resolution on North Korea.

South Africa’s Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, established a commission of inquiry last year to investigate human rights violations in that country.

It produced its report two months ago, concluding that crimes against humanity had been committed for decades under policies established at the highest level of the North Korean government.


The crimes committed in North Korea include extermination; murder; enslavement; torture; imprisonment; rape; forced abortion and other sexual violence; persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds; the forcible transfer of populations; enforced disappearances and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

It is estimated that between 80 000 and 120 000 political prisoners are detained in four large political prison camps where deliberate starvation has been used as a means of control and punishment. The report accused North Korea of discrimination based on what it called the apartheid-like songbun system, which classifies people on the basis of state-assigned social class and birth, and determines, for example, where they may live.

When he presented the commission’s report in February, the commissioner, Michael Kirby, put the human rights abuses in North Korea on a par with the atrocities of the Nazis, the apartheid regime and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The UN Human Rights Council adopted the commission’s report last month and referred it to the UN Security Council for further action, including sanctions and possible indictments by the International Criminal Court.

No doubt China, if not Russia, will use its veto on the Security Council to prevent such action.

How could South Africa sit on the fence in the face of such grave atrocities?

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

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