Pretoria weighs Saudi arms sales against human rights

Pretoria weighs Saudi arms sales against human rights
Members of the Turkish Human Rights Association hold pictures of missing Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 09 October 2018. EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN

The Khashoggi crisis raises questions about South Africa’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia and many other countries. 

First published by ISS Today

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa must be feeling uncomfortably like Donald Trump right now. The United States president is weighing a $110-billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia against the merits of getting tough on Saudi Arabia for its brazen murder – now all but confirmed – of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

Ramaphosa has much less Saudi money, only $10-billion, in the game. But relatively it’s at least as much. And it may explain why Pretoria took a while to comment on Khashoggi’s death, and then rather grudgingly, it seems, expressed its “concern regarding reports about the disappearance” of the journalist and welcomed the joint Saudi-Turkish investigation into his disappearance.

Nevertheless, South Africa appears to have been caught in the classic dilemma of having to balance its arms sales and its human rights aspirations. The Khashoggi scandal has come at a particularly bad moment for Pretoria, attracting attention to its arms dealing with what looks like an immoral, ruthless regime. The saga has also cast a refracted light on South Africa’s arms sales to a host of other countries, some rather shady, and many in Africa.

Last week International Relations and Co-operation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu confirmed Saudi reports that Riyadh was considering buying a stake in South Africa’s “ailing” parastatal arms manufacturer Denel. She said both this proposed sale and possible South African arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be vetted by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC).

Sisulu stressed that it was the multi-government agency NCACC’s responsibility to ensure that South Africa didn’t sell arms to any country that might use them to violate human rights. Upholding human rights, she insisted, was South Africa’s “religion” at home and abroad.

The National Conventional Arms Control Act, which governs the NCACC, explicitly states that in deciding who it may sell arms to, South Africa must: “avoid contributing to internal repression, including the systematic violation or suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms; avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms; avoid transfers of conventional arms that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability…”

What Sisulu didn’t say, maybe because she didn’t know, was that South Africa had been selling tons of arms to Saudi Arabia for the past few years, with the approval of the NCACC.

Saudi critics in South Africa believe Riyadh has been using some of the South African munitions in its relentless bombardment of the strongholds of its Iran-backed Houthi enemies in Yemen. Over the past three years, thousands of civilians have died in that civil war.

The sale of South African arms to Saudi Arabia – and many other countries – is detailed in the NCACC’s annual reports to Parliament. The latest report, covering 2017, shows that sales to Saudi Arabia included heavy weapons, mortars and electronic systems for delivering armaments.

Critics of the arms sales also suspect that Saudi Arabia turned to South Africa to acquire the know-how to manufacture armed drones after the US blocked its Predator drone sales to Riyadh in 2013.

The NCACC report also details arms sales to Myanmar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s ally in the Yemen war, the United Arab Emirates, all of which should have raised red flags. Buyers of South African arms in Africa include Somalia, Angola, Botswana, Mali, Namibia, eSwatini, Zambia, Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.

Whether sales to any of these countries caused any hesitation to the NCACC is unclear – it doesn’t reveal its deliberations, justifications or rejections. But some of these sales raise real questions about how seriously the NCACC has been doing its job. 

Does it comprehensively ponder each and every proposed sale at a sufficiently high level of government, up to and including cabinet ministers? Or do relatively junior officials rubber stamp proposed sales?

Sisulu assured journalists at last week’s press conference that when she couldn’t attend NCACC meetings, her deputy Luwellyn Landers did. But he too doesn’t seem to have attended any meetings lately, officials say.

Against Sisulu’s fervour for a Nelson Mandela-like human rights-based foreign policy appears to be pitted Ramaphosa’s perhaps equally fervent ambition to attract at least $100-billion in investment over the next five years. The president is determined to kick-start a stalled economy, hopefully in time to show results before he faces a restless electorate in May next year.

In July Ramaphosa travelled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and returned with promises of $10-billion in investment from each. The Saudi portion was expected to comprise mostly energy projects. But now it seems it might include buying a big chunk of Denel. The potential Denel deal must be giving Pretoria pause about a blanket ban on arms deals with Riyadh.

And the Saudi commitment to investment, in general, may well explain Pretoria’s belated response to Khashoggi’s alleged murder. Perhaps this stance will be defended on the grounds that any criticism of Riyadh might upset Pretoria’s efforts to broker a peace deal in Yemen.

At last week’s press conference, Sisulu revealed that Saudi Arabia had asked South Africa to approach Iran to ensure Tehran didn’t “violate the rights of the Yemeni people”. In most people’s books, this request is legitimate. But Iran couldn’t have been pleased that its archenemy had asked its supposed old ally, South Africa, to stop it violating the rights of Yemenis.

If South Africa cites its Yemen peace effort as a reason for not criticising Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi, that will be a stretch. But selling arms and part of an arms company to a country while simultaneously trying to broker a peace deal in a foreign war where those arms are supposedly being used, would be even more of a stretch.

A serious, high-level meeting of the NCACC is called for. DM

Peter Fabricius is an ISS Consultant


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