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South Africa’s smart steps towards reversing the legacy of Myanmar vote

By Nicole Fritz

Johannesburg — LAST week, Minister for International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane condemned the trial of Myanmar’s Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, and called for her unconditional release.

Then this week, the minister’s deputy, Ebrahim Ebrahim, met the Myanmar ambassador to convey the government’s concern and mooted the idea of sending a delegation to facilitate negotiations between political parties.

Many will see in these actions a welcome change in SA’s policy towards Myanmar and will hope that this bodes well for the weight given human rights considerations in SA’s foreign policy formulation. No one need fear that such an approach will entail the diminishment of a long-time foreign policy objective — securing more equitable reform of multilateral institutions. In fact, contrary to what the previous administration implied, a more human rights- weighted foreign policy may best secure this objective.

Ever since SA cast its vote, together with China and Russia, in one of its first actions on the United Nations Security Council, to defeat a resolution condemning the situation in Myanmar, the government has been perceived as having protected the military junta and sold out its human rights commitments in foreign affairs. SA’s explanation that the security council was not the appropriate forum in which to determine these matters, that they were best decided in the human rights council, did little to silence the outcry. SA appeared to approach the Myanmar vote less as a time to debate how best to improve Myanmar’s human rights record and more as an opportunity to advance its agenda of more equitable global governance: promoting the human rights council as a more representative body than the security council but also thwarting the US and its double standards approach to the condemnation of human rights violations.

But it overplayed its hand here . SA would have known that the Chinese and Russian veto votes were sufficient to defeat the resolution, rendering its own negative vote meaningless but for a symbolic effect. It might simply have abstained from the vote, as did Indonesia. In casting a negative vote, SA implied, even on its own terms, that given a choice between condemning human rights violations and securing institutional reform, it would always choose the latter. That was a tactical blunder.

If SA is serious about leading reform of multilateral institutions and securing more equitable participation, it will have to build a constituency, not only among like-minded states but also among the populations of those large powers most likely to resist such efforts — populations of European and North American states. The sections of the population in countries such as France or the US most likely to care about greater equality in institutions such as the UN are exactly the same sections likely to care about human rights violations in Myanmar.

Moreover, if SA is to lead such efforts, it cannot afford to restrict its voice solely to a regional sphere. It needs to play a visible role in respect of situations warranting global concern when its voice carries weight. We’re unlikely to be much heeded on developments such as those in Pakistan, but the similarities of our histories make SA’s voice relevant to the situation in Myanmar. In carving out a leadership role for itself, SA also needs to be creative and take the initiative. It might have learnt better from the US’s role on the security council. Even knowing it would be defeated, the US forced a vote on the Myanmar resolution because it would require those opposing it to do so publicly and face the public fall-out.

SA might similarly have played offensive in respect of situations unlikely to earn the big powers’ reproof. It did not.  But the department’s approach of this week and last — involving creative proposals, and action and utterances conveying obvious protest — suggests that the legacy of SA’s Myanmar vote may now be clearly and cleverly reversed.

Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.


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