South Africa is getting involved in the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen by mediating between the two antagonists, the government has disclosed. But is it also, on the other hand, about to start selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the same bitter Yemen war?
International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has confirmed reports that Saudi Arabia had approached South Africa to buy a stake in the “ailing” state arms manufacturer Denel.
She also disclosed that Saudi Arabia had asked South Africa to approach Iran to ensure Tehran “did not violate the rights of the Yemeni people”. Iran is widely believed to be providing military support to the Houthi militants who are fighting Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the crossfire.
Sisulu said at a press conference in Pretoria on Thursday that the Saudi bid to buy a stake in Denel would have to be vetted by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) which has a mandate to ensure that South Africa does not sell arms to countries that might use them to violate human rights.
And Sisulu said she would check reports in the Saudi media that Saudi Arabia was about to buy a large consignment of weapons from South Africa. If such a deal was proposed, it would also have to be vetted by the NCACC.
This was in response to a journalist who urged her to block the deal as it could mean that South African weapons would be used to kill Yemeni civilians. The journalist noted that 44 Yemeni children had recently been killed in a Saudi airstrike on a school bus and that fragments of US bombs had been found at the sight of the explosion. She said that Germany, Norway and Belgium had responded to an appeal from Human Rights Watch by ending their arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Sisulu denied the suggestion from the journalist that the NCACC was not functioning. She insisted it was still meeting regularly, and that when she was not able to attend, her deputy minister attended. The committee was not always able to form a quorum for its meetings, she acknowledged. But there was always “a whole host of officials” attending who explained to the committee the political situation of any country SA sold arms to.
“We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights,” Sisulu insisted.
“The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief.”
However it could not be established from officials when the NCACC had last met.
Sisulu also disclosed that on the Yemen issue, the Saudis had approached South Africa to help ensure “that Iran does not violate the rights of the Yemeni people.
“We have met with the Iranians and we are a go-between the two countries. That is part of what we would like to do, to reach out to everybody and make our contribution to the world tangible.
“We interacted with Iran and Iran had an explanation to give about what they feel about the threat to the Yemeni people. We will continue with that. It’s in a very delicate state and I can’t go into details.
“But once we find an amicable solution to this we will come and brief you. But I just want you to know that we are putting ourselves up as being part of the solution to this particular situation. And if we have the support of both warring sides it does put us at an advantage to create the peace we all want.”
On the issue of Myanmar, Sisulu said the government was awaiting an assessment of the human rights situation in Myanmar from two advisers before making a statement on possible human rights violations against the country’s Muslim minority Rohingya people there.
The team comprises Roelf Meyer, former chief negotiator for the old National Party in the transitional negotiations, and former deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim. Sisulu said they formed a team which was advising the government by assessing volatile situations where it thought there might be violations of human rights.
Sisulu was responding to a question about why the Ramaphosa administration had not condemned human rights violations by Myanmar against the Rohyingya people when the UN Human Rights Commissioner had recently issued a report which had been strongly critical of Myanmar’s government and security forces. The journalist noted that in September 2017 the Zuma administration had issued a strong statement on Mynamr but the current administration, though ostensibly more committed to upholding human rights, had so far remained silent.
“It is a matter we are still considering and there is no time frame on expressing how we feel about this matter,” Sisulu said.
She disclosed that the government was relying on Meyer and Ebrahim to assess human rights situations in several countries and that they were currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We will await their assessment of Myanmar and then we will come back and issue a statement.”
On the issue of Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara,(also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) Sisulu said at its recent summit, SADC had decided to hold a conference on the problem, “to see if we could come up with a solution we could live with, about how we support Sahrawi and ensure they are given their rights within their own country.” This summit to be hosted by SA would decide how to help the Sahrawi people get their independence.
She was replying to a journalist who complained that SA and other African countries constantly reiterated their support for the liberation of Western Sahara, yet the African Union has just re-admitted Morocco as a member.
Sisulu also indicated the government had no new information about the South African miner Christo Bothma and two others who were kidnapped by unidentified armed men on 23 September in Burkina Faso between the Inata gold mine and the town of Djibo bordering Mali and Niger.
Although violent extremists are active in the area, Sisulu said the government believed this had been more a “robbery around getting resources, as opposed to a political matter”.
“We had been hoping that someone would come forward and request a ransom. So far the South African government, the mission in the area are working day and night with law enforcement agencies to attend to the situation.” DM
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