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For Immediate Release
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South Africa: Put Rights at Center of Foreign Policy

Zuma Should Grasp Opportunity to Break With the Recent Past


South Africa's new government should make human rights a central pillar of its foreign policy agenda, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President-elect Jacob Zuma.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that in recent years - including during its two-year stint as a member of the United Nations Security Council - South Africa has chosen to side with some of the worst human rights abusers, including Iran, Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. While it justifiably criticized the human rights practices of the United States and Israel and sought reform of international institutions, Pretoria failed to take the moral high ground and build a broad north-south alliance around strengthening international law and human rights. As a result, it squandered its international reputation, which it had so effectively built up in the 1990s, as a champion of human rights and the rule of law.

"South Africans and their supporters all over the world who had such high hopes for this country's leadership on human rights felt betrayed by the previous government," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This is a chance for Zuma to take the high road and restore credibility and balance to South Africa's foreign policy."

Human Rights Watch called attention to situations in three nations where South African leadership could lead to significant improvements and progress in human rights: Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe.

In Sudan, a number of interlinking issues continue to undermine human rights. The major elements are: the armed conflict, lack of security, and obstruction of humanitarian aid in Darfur; African Union and Arab League moves to help President Omar al-Bashir evade justice; and the threat of renewed north-south conflict between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Those responsible for the worst crimes in Darfur know they will not face justice and the Sudanese government has used the International Criminal Court's (ICC) arrest warrant for al-Bashir as a pretext to expel international humanitarian organizations, unnecessarily endangering further the lives of millions of civilians in Darfur.

Human Rights Watch called on the new South African government to:

In its letter to President-elect Zuma, Human Rights Watch also detailed how the new government could help end the rampant abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and help set the country firmly on a democratic footing. To its great credit, South Africa has contributed a substantial number of peacekeeping troops to the United Nations force in Congo. The UN force is involved in joint military operations with Congolese government forces against brutal Hutu militias like the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR).

But UN peacekeepers have so far been unsuccessful in restraining government soldiers from also committing abuses against civilians. To make matters worse, the deputy commander of the Congolese military force is reported to be Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel commander who has been charged with war crimes by the ICC. Human Rights Watch said that South African forces should not be standing by while abuses are taking place or working with people like Ntaganda.

Human Rights Watch called on the new government to:

  • Help the Congolese government establish a vetting mechanism to remove from the army and police individuals accused of serious human rights violations, and to ensure that they are brought to justice rather than promoted; and
  • Press the Congolese authorities to punish abusive soldiers and their commanders and to bring abuses to a halt.

In Zimbabwe, despite the formation of a new power-sharing government, the crisis persists and human rights abuses continue. Police continue to intimidate and arrest activists, and supporters of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the longtime governing party, continue their violent invasions of commercial farms. Police and prosecuting authorities who have remained under the control of ZANU-PF in the power-sharing government have continued politically motivated prosecutions of political opponents and have failed to investigate ongoing allegations of torture. Key state and judicial institutions remain partisan and unreformed.

The government is yet to initiate comprehensive legislative reforms and repeal repressive laws like the Public Order and Security Act, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, as well as a litany of laws that restrict media operations.

Human Rights Watch called on the new South African government to:

  • Monitor closely the progress of all parties to Zimbabwe's power-sharing agreement in carrying out all commitments they made as part of the Global Political Agreement, including respecting individual rights, passing human rights-centered legislative reforms, drafting a new constitution, and holding fresh elections that meet international standards of freedom and fairness; and
  • Press Zimbabwe's inclusive government to commit to, and institute, genuine political change.

"The new government of President Zuma should establish early on that it is committed to playing a positive role in ending repression and abuses not only on the continent but in other parts of the world," Gagnon said. "Zimbabwe is an obvious place to start."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.