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How South Africa’s cooperation with Ukraine can change the world

How South Africa’s cooperation with Ukraine can change the world
From left: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa address a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 16 June 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

South Africa and Ukraine have more in common than you might think.

If you were asked to list the countries that contributed most to the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, would you mention Ukraine? It might not seem obvious, yet Ukraine was the ANC’s key ally in the global fight against apartheid.

This contribution was possible through the work of Hennadiy Udovenko, Permanent Representative of the Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic to the UN, who served as a long-time Vice-Chair of the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. In his UN speeches, he often mentioned the ANC Alliance’s Freedom Charter and disseminated ideas proclaimed therein.

Presiding over the committee meetings, he shed light on human rights violations in South Africa and gathered global support behind accountability for the apartheid regime. 

Importantly, his profile as an active opponent of the apartheid regime willing to act on his own, without deference to the Soviet Union’s representative to the UN, was valued in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, where he later served as the minister between 1994 and 1998, before becoming president of the UN General Assembly.

However, despite this historical cooperation, the escalation of the Russian aggression revealed certain differences and misapprehensions between Ukraine, South Africa and other countries of the Global South. We can understand why it is so – for too much time, the Global South’s own grievances and legitimate calls for help were overlooked by other countries. In fact, too little effort was made to take into account the Global South countries’ unique history and concerns.

Ukraine has learnt from these mistakes. 

With a new foreign policy pivot to the Global South, this year Ukraine is opening 10 new embassies throughout Africa.

Yet it is not only about the state policy. Ukrainian civil society is increasingly willing to pursue closer ties with colleagues from non-Western countries, learn from their experience and join forces to build a just, free and equal world.

Truth Hounds, a Ukrainian NGO that since 2014 documents, investigates and helps to prosecute international crimes, has long been interacting with colleagues representing what is called Global South. We strongly believe that only the concerted efforts of human rights defenders from all over the world may break the vicious circle of impunity. 

Having made much effort to truly understand our colleagues from the Global South, we are prepared to acknowledge that Russian aggression is hardly different from the colonisation, oppression, wars and injustice that have plagued societies in the Global South for decades.

Why justice (everywhere) matters

Ukrainians are not the first victims, but we want to be the last ones. If the world chooses to quietly observe war crimes against the Ukrainian civilian population and other mass atrocities likely falling under the definition of genocide, as it did in the past with other nations, new generations will be the next to suffer. As Martin Luther King Jr presciently put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This is the core idea behind the system of international criminal justice, to which South Africa has contributed so much with its moral leadership.

In July 1998, the month when South Africa became one of the first 10 signatories of the Rome Statute, Nelson Mandela proclaimed that Africa “has suffered enough horrors emanating from the inhumanity of human beings towards human beings. […] many of these might not have occurred, or at least been minimised, had there been an effectively functioning International Criminal Court.” South Africa continues to support the development of international criminal law, most recently participating in the drafting of the Ljubljana-the Hague Convention on International Cooperation in the Investigation and Prosecution of the Crime of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Other International Crimes.

However, today our common dedication to the International Criminal Court and, speaking more broadly, to mutually agreed rules of peaceful coexistence and respect for human rights, faces a serious challenge. On 17 March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war crime of unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children. As at least 19,484 cases of deportation have been confirmed (and many more are yet to be identified), the world has learnt of criminal policies of the Russian regime that are likely to correspond to the definition of genocide, that is, forcibly transferring children of one group to another group.

As Ukrainian human rights defenders, we are genuinely concerned about the prospect of an ICC indictee being invited to participate in the BRICS Summit hosted by South Africa, either offline or online. We fully respect the freedom of South Africa to make its sovereign decisions on the composition of international delegations, yet the implications of this particular case for global justice are too big to ignore. Inviting him even virtually will legitimise him and create a veneer of tolerance for Russia’s criminal policies. This is precisely why the UN has a special guideline strongly discouraging its officials from any contacts, except strictly necessary and inevitable, with ICC indictees. This advice is certainly worth heeding beyond the UN system.

By making seemingly insignificant contacts and visits, Russia seeks to legitimise its grave violations – and gradually deplete international law. Just like the ancient lingchi practice – death by a thousand cuts – Russia seeks to undermine the foundations upon which our current world order is based.

Putin’s participation in the BRICS summit might be a small cut – yet you never know which straw would break the camel’s back. Each concession to the regime led by an alleged war criminal is hazardous for the world.

South Africa’s decision also matters for victims – for millions of Ukrainians who lost their close ones, their homes, for thousands who were tortured, raped and abused by the Russian forces across the vast occupied terrain, from Bucha to Mariupol.

There is another important moment to consider. The parents and relatives of children who have been illegally deported will be devastated and further retraumatised. Put yourself in their shoes – the person who is responsible for your suffering, the man who ordered your children to be abducted, is freely participating in an event in a democratic state. The world turns a blind eye to what you have lived through and disregards the arrest warrant of the sole judicial body created to fight against exactly this type of injustice.

We understand that many in the Global South might view the ICC as an institution failing to equally target the North. For this reason, this situation is even more unique – for the first time in history, the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for a leader ordering the perpetration of international crimes regardless of him leading a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council. Therefore, South Africa’s cooperation with the ICC and with Ukraine in this respect can contribute to achieving our mutual interests and unprecedentedly strengthen the system that Nelson Mandela built. This is a chance we cannot miss.

It’s not only about justice: Opportunities for SA in Ukraine

Importantly, it does not look like Russia possesses sound economic arguments that may impact the policy of South Africa on upholding international law. South Africa’s main trading partners are China, the US and Germany, with the European Union, African Union and the US together accounting for 50% of its trade. Beyond doubt, BRICS plays an instrumental role in South Africa’s trade. Yet 72.7% of this significant share accounts for China, with another 21.1% of goods and services traded with India. Even Brazil (3.9%) overtakes Russia with its marginal 2.3%. Furthermore, most investments come to South Africa from the EU, US, China, Japan and Australia.

Moreover, cooperation between South Africa and Ukraine may be of relevance in many areas. Take, for example, the unique Ukrainian experience in maintaining and restoring the electricity grid even despite Russia’s intensive missile and drone attacks aimed at freezing us in winter. This might come in handy for South Africa to ensure the proper functioning of its own grid.

Another unique area of cooperation Ukraine could offer is developing digital governance in South Africa. Ukraine’s groundbreaking application Diia has already revolutionised state services in Ukraine and gone global, with Zambia being recently announced as one of the countries to work with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine to strengthen its own digital governance. Of course, our military tech and combat experience may be useful for strengthening South Africa’s national defence.

Beyond doubt, Ukraine can learn a lot from South Africa. We are a country which, just like South Africa and many countries of the Global South, has its own bitter colonial past. Unfortunately, there is little awareness in the world of the colonial pages of our history. This is because colonialism is often associated with maritime dominance, while Russia’s colonisation of Ukraine was conducted by land. Furthermore, colonialism in scholarship was often equated with Western colonial powers, while patterns of colonial behaviour of other empires, such as Russia, were often overlooked.

Despite these distortions in international perception, Ukraine suffered from very harsh colonial oppressive measures during its times as a Russian colony. Russian Tsars’ orders prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language in churches, music, theatre and book printing, including educational training materials. Gradually but very consistently, the foundations of Ukrainian statehood and autonomy were being undermined.

Today, as Ukraine is trying to come to terms with its colonial past in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, it could work closely with South Africa to promote historical memory, heal postcolonial traumas, and devise ways to globally disseminate knowledge of our past to strengthen our international standing today and to promote the cause of human rights.

Finally, Ukraine and South Africa could work together to build bridges between the Global South and North and to shorten the distance between them. Being a postcolonial country and a victim of aggression, while belonging to the Euro-Atlantic community, Ukraine is uniquely positioned to relate to the positions of both the Global South and North and to promote dialogue between them.

Ukraine has never been as open to working with South Africa and the Global South as now. At all levels of our society and state, there is a genuine interest in developing ties and overcoming prejudice. Today, we can work together to build a world where distinctions between the North and South are no longer an obstacle to upholding equality, justice and peace in international relations for all countries, without any exception. Let us just take the first step. As Mandela would say, “it is in [our] hands to make a better world for all who live in it.” DM

Dr Dmytro Koval is Legal Director at Truth Hounds. A former research fellow at Stanford University, Central European University, Jagiellonian University, and the Graduate School for Social Research of the Polish Academy of Science, he has advised the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, Unesco, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ukraine Prosecutor General’s Office, and Ukrainian MPs on different aspects of international law.

Nick Yurlov is Senior Legal Counsel at Truth Hounds. He is an international law professional focusing on international humanitarian law and international criminal law with a background in dispute resolution.

Erik Kucherenko is Legal Counsel at Truth Hounds and an adviser to a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament on policy and international law. He has served as a secretary to the delegation of the Ukrainian Parliament to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, focusing on establishing relations with parliamentarians from African, Asian and Latin American countries. 


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