South Africa got it wrong at the UN Human Rights Council on Yemen

The United Nations Security Council meets on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

South Africa’s foreign policy often punches way above its weight.  It draws its confidence from the country’s political history and what many still refer to as a “political miracle”. The manner in which it managed its political transition from apartheid to democracy guaranteed South Africa’s political inclusion in many international platforms.

Notwithstanding the size of its economy and indeed its geographical location, South Africa is a leading member of the African Union (AU), IBSA (India, Brazil South Africa) and Brazil, Russia, India, China South Africa (BRICS) bloc of nations.  BRICS is the most important of these memberships. The country was formally invited to join the then BRIC in December 2010, it subsequently changed its acronym to BRICS.  It was a momentous occasion for the country, notwithstanding a number of criticisms at the time.  Amongst the criticisms was that South Africa was too small a country and economy to be part of BRICS.  China has a total population of 1,374 billion, India 1,324 billion, Brazil 207 billion and Russia 144 million people. These are huge numbers compared to South Africa’s population of 55,9 million.

However, Pretoria insisted that its membership was not only to advance its sociopolitical and economic agenda but that of Africa and other developing economies as well. South Africa has continued to forge ahead in its role in world politics.  It has over the years hosted a number of high-level political events in the country including the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban in 2001, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 and the launch of the African Union (AU) in 2010. It also asserted itself in the world of sport, hosting the 2009 International Cricket World Cup in 2009 and the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Recently South Africa was voted as a non-permanent member of the of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by the United Nations General Assembly in June 2018.  It will serve in the UNSC for the term 2019 – 2020. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), a bloc of 15 Southern African states nominated South Africa. The African Union (AU) subsequently endorsed South Africa giving it a continental mandate of some sorts. The UNSC consists of 15 members, five permanent members and 10 non-permanent members are elected each year.

It is a big deal for South Africa and the young presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa who is still finding its feet in international politics.  It is the third time since the dawn of democracy that South Africa has been nominated to the UNSC. The two previous occasions at the UNSC has not been smooth sailing for South Africa.  During its first term on the Security Council in 2007, South Africa voted against an important resolution calling for a end to military attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma, joining Russia and China as they voted. South Africa is likely to make similar difficult decisions this time around. The biggest challenge for South Africa will be its positions on the ongoing war in Yemen. The country has already shown which approach it might take moving forward in this regard.

On 28 September 2018 in Geneva, South Africa abstained on a vote on a UN resolution calling to extend an international probe of alleged human rights violations in Yemen by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels. The members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted in favor of the resolution by 21 to eight, with 18 abstentions. The Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Egypt involved in the bombardment of Yemen issued a statement condemning the resolution.  It was an expected yet disappointing position taken by South Africa.

According to the Middle East Eye, “South Africa’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have grown since the beginning of the war in Yemen, making it potentially complicit in war crimes committed by the two countries in Yemen since 2015”.  Moreover, South Africa’s economic business interests in the Gulf have been growing rapidly.  Consequently heightening concerns in the Middle East about South Africa’s non-permanent seat in the UNSC for obvious reasons.

Notwithstanding its principled foreign policy position on Palestine, South Africa has been found wanting on several occasions on foreign policy decisions pertaining to the Middle East.  According to Human Right Watch, “during its second term in 2011, the country began to abstain on all votes relating to the global south after it was criticized as championing a Western agenda when it voted to authorize a no-fly zone in Libya”. Just a few months after the Libya vote, it abstained on a resolution that would have “condemned grave and systematic human rights violations” in Syria. What is even more concerning to many in the Middle East and indeed South Africa is the strengthening of political and economic cooperation between South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been condemned by a number of human rights organisations including the Human Rights Watch for continuing violations of basic human rights in Yemen.  Furthermore the hushed treatment of human rights activists and suppression of basic rights inside the country add to these concerns. On 29 September the Minister of Trade and Investment Rob Davies travelled to Saudi Arabia to co-chair the 8th Session of the South Africa – Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission (JEC). According to the Trade and Investment Ministry, the minister is going to Saudi Arabia “to follow up on Saudi Arabia’s US$10 Billion investment pledge”.

South Africa is still recovering from the negative impressions after its disastrous position on Libya in 2011. The Libyan diplomatic blunder eroded the country’s reputation. The cozying of relations between Saudi Arabia and South Africa will undoubtedly not help enhance South Africa’s reputation, particularly in the Middle East where the kingdom continues to suffer bad publicity. The decision on Yemen at the UNHRC on 28 September will undoubtedly impact negatively on the reputation of South Africa.  This could in the long run overshadow its positive contribution in world politics, including its constructive positions on Palestine.

Thembisa Fakude is a Researcher and Head of Research Relations at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.