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Another human rights fail

04 December 2015

Last week, the South African government dealt yet another devastating blow to its human rights record, as it voted against a UN Third Committee resolution on the protection of human rights activists.

Yet, in a surprising move, it issued a statement on November 30 stating it would vote in favour of this very resolution when it is voted on again in the UN General Assembly. Why the change of heart?

The resolution recalls the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which is an international instrument that seeks to protect the right to defend human rights.

It affirms that protecting defenders and activists is vital as they seek to protect indispensable rights including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and access to information.

It is a resolution designed to promote and protect human rights defenders and create an environment where they can operate without fear of persecution or intimidation.

It includes provisions that will lead to the realisation and promotion of cultural, social and economic rights as well as provisions pertaining to activists working on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection.

It also underscores the need for corporate entities to pay closer attention to the devastating impact their business ventures could have on human rights including meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups.

Why vote against a progressive resolution that safeguards the freedoms many of us enjoy? Why vote against a resolution that promotes and protects the very rights the current government fought for during the anti-apartheid struggle?

Thankfully, 117 member states voted in favour of this progressive resolution while 40 abstained.

Initially, the official line from the government seemed to be that it voted against this resolution because it is concerned about the definition of a human rights defender.

Yet the definition of a human rights defender at the UN level is deliberately broad as it is meant to be relevant internationally. As the human rights defender situation differs from country to country, a broad and inclusive definition is required. It includes individual activists and organisations.

It changed its position and stated that it has procedural problems with the way in which matters were handled in the Third Committee. But does that alone justify voting against such an important resolution? Clearly not, as the shift in its own position indicates.

The shift came a few days after the voting against the resolution made news headlines. The Department of International Relations and Co-operation issued a statement indicating that, when the resolution goes before the General Assembly, South Africa would vote in favour of it but again, why the change in position?

Perhaps the shift is recognition of the fact that South Africa’s 2015 voting record at such forums leaves a lot to be desired.

In March, it voted against the establishment of a new UN role that would be mandated to deal with the issues surrounding privacy and the surveillance of citizens. It abstained from voting on resolutions relating to human rights violations perpetrated in Iran and North Korea. It also voted to prevent condemnation of human rights abuses in Burma and Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the government recognised the folly of its ways after the significant pressure from civil society organisations in the country who condemned this vote against the resolution.

The reality is that in many countries defending human rights is becoming more perilous. Activists, journalists, protesters, are imprisoned and sentenced to death for even questioning the powers that be.

In this environment of reprisal from governments, human rights activists need support and protection to ensure the creation and maintenance of free, open, tolerant societies. South Africa should be in full support of this resolution.

International scrutiny of nations that continue to suppress human rights activism is required and this resolution is a critical step in the process. It symbolises the opportunity to address the threatening climate that many human rights defenders are forced to operate in.

In any case, the resolution contains provisions that bear a strong resemblance to rights that are guaranteed by our constitution and one would hope that South Africa’s voting and international conduct at the UN would be a reflection of the constitutional weight given to human rights domestically.

Perhaps the decision to vote in favour of the resolution could finally place South Africa back on to the right side of history.


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