The Burma blunder

IN THE UN Security Council this week, South Africa joined permanent members China and Russia in voting against a US-proposed resolution that called for Burma to release all political prisoners and end human rights abuses.

A brutal military junta has ruled Burma illegitimately for some time despite pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi winning the elections in 1990. For many years since then, Suu Kyi has lived under house arrest – her crime being nothing more than having won an election by an overwhelming margin.

In Burma forced and child labour is common, human trafficking is rife, the judiciary is not independent and the media, including the internet, is heavily censored.

The South African government was aware of this when it voted against the resolution. At a press conference the Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad explained: “This resolution does not fit with the charter mandate conferred upon the security council, which is to deal with matters that are a threat to international peace and security,” while SA’s UN Ambassador, Dumisani Khumalo, claimed the resolution compromised “the good offices of the [UN] secretary-general”.

Both excuses are ridiculous. As an opinion piece in the ‘Business Day’ illustrated, human rights abuses can easily become an international issue because of the potential consequences the abuses invoke: refugee movement, cross-border ethnic tensions and a backlash of violence that can so easily spill into neighbouring countries.

Khumalo’s remark has no credence either. Exactly how could a resolution censuring human rights abuses compromise the secretary-general’s function? Indeed, it is through resolutions passed by the Security Council that the UN receives credibility and the secretary-general’s position is bolstered.

South Africa could not prevent China and Russia from vetoing this resolution but by siding with them it has exposed her government’s noncommittal and indifferent stance with regards to human rights generally and more specifically her callous disregard to the suffering and oppressed people of Burma. It begs the question: why did South Africa choose to vote against the resolution – especially considering our tragic and oppressive history preceding the adoption of our excellent constitution and bill of rights in 1996?

One theory is that South Africa wanted to irritate the US and attempt to dismantle the dominance that the omnipresent US has on the global political and diplomatic landscape.

Another is that the South African government wanted to earn diplomatic kudos with China and Russia who are playing an increasingly significant role in economic development in Africa. Both countries’ premiers visited SA in 2006 and in bilateral discussions, trade and investment topped the agenda.

Whatever SA’s reasons for choosing not to identify with moves to democratise Burma, they are indefensible. If South Africa is to have a meaningful two years on the Security Council, voting on resolutions needs to be based on the principles enshrined in our constitution.

Supplementary reading:
Whose side is SA on, anyway?


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