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South Africa has voted against the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights defenders

South Africa – along with 13 other countries including North Korea, Sudan, Syria, China, Russia and Zimbabwe – voted on Wednesday against adopting a resolution that would recognise threats against defenders of human rights.

The declaration recognises, in international law, the extreme importance and legitimacy of human-rights activity, and those who carry it out.

The unanimity of the 1989 adoption of the declaration was broken after Norway asked to vote on it this week. There were 117 votes in favour of the resolution, 14 against and 40 abstentions.

This is the latest action that has brought South Africa’s reputation as a defender of human rights into question. In June, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accused of masterminding genocide, was able to leave the AU summit in Sandton and fly home, in defiance of a Pretoria High Court ruling ordering his detention under a warrant from the International Criminal Court. In recent years South Africa has voted in the UN against condemning human-rights abuses in countries like Zimbabwe and abstained from voting for resolutions to condemn countries such as Syria and North Korea for human rights violations.

Muluka-Anne Miti-Drummond of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre said this week’s decision had tainted the image of South Africa as human rights-friendly.

“There is nothing in the resolution that South Africa is not already obliged to do so it doesn’t make sense not to sign this,” she said.

The resolution contained human rights enshrined in the constitution, such as the right to life, to freedom of association and to be free from torture, she said.

The declaration is applicable to South Africa despite the country having voted against it.

Alfredo Hengari of the SA Institute of International Affairs said: “It’s unbelievable how we have deteriorated in articulation of very noble principles and causes that underpin our constitution.

“In my view this decision [to vote against the declaration] is based on unenlightened self-interest,” he said.

The SA Human Rights Commission expressed disappointment in the government.

But the spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, Clayson Monyela, said the resolution on human rights defenders was overly prescriptive on the sovereignty of national parliaments. It sought to impose conditions that would effectively place rights defenders above the law.

South Africa disagreed with the resolution on three issues, national laws, sources of funding and the definition of human-rights defenders.

Florian Irminger, head of advocacy at the Human Rights House Network, wrote on the organisation’s website that he was concerned that some states were trying to unpick or challenge existing norms, as a way of reducing international scrutiny of their domestic policies and practices.

Philani Mthembu of the Institute for Global Dialogue said: “It seems that for China and Russia it’s about sovereignty and the possibility that leading Western nations may use human rights as a pretext to intervene in the domestic affairs of developing countries.

Their fear is that by giving special rights to human rights defenders they could weaken their sovereignty.”

Mthembu said the ANC had expressed similar concerns.

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