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Since assuming the post of Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu has pronounced on the centrality of human rights to South Africa’s foreign policy.
In May, 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 is a refreshing change from the years of negligence by the previous administration, who punted the objective of economic diplomacy above other tenets of foreign policy.

Sisulu’s attempts to resurrect South Africa’s credibility in international forums, however, is met with deep-seated apathy among some officials, who have contributed to the “policy positions” of abstentions at the UN 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 human rights causes, South Africa relinquishes its moral authority.

Last week, at a media briefing, Sisulu faced questions over Saudi Arabia’s interests in purchasing a stake in the state-owned enterprise 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.

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 2016 and 2017.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 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 United Arab Emirates. South Africa ranks among its top arms suppliers for the period 2007 to 2017.

Minister Jeff Radebe said in June 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 was provided on conflict zones within the context of South Africa’s national interests.

He added that the track record of certain countries in terms of human rights was considered, including the issue of regional dynamics. In the same briefing, Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said 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 recent years. 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 Sisulu’s own admission, the committee, of which she is a member, has not been able to reach a quorum for meetings.

Previous attempts by 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 public has the right to know how these decisions have been taken, and why evidence of violations has gone unchecked.

* Adam is a former South African diplomat, and a freelance writer and political consultant.

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

The Sunday Independent