Key takeaways from 15th BRICS Summit – and the human rights alarm bell ringing over bloc’s new members
China was the biggest winner, Russia was left out over the war in Ukraine, some new BRICS members are authoritarian regimes with little regard for human rights, reforming the United Nations Security Council was a key discussion point, and finance ministers and central bank governors of BRICS nations have been tasked with considering the modalities of trading in local currencies.
1. China is the biggest winner of the 15th BRICS Summit
China’s plan to achieve world dominance has advanced through the introduction of more countries joining the BRICS collective, as it means more opportunities to gain allies and increase trade.
At this point, all BRICS member countries have China as their main trading partner and little trade with each other.
With the addition of the Argentine Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as full members, China has reason to celebrate. This expansion could potentially help it to grow its economy further and strengthen its geopolitical standing in the world.
China also gains by the addition of oil producers Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran because this should mean more oil transactions are done in yuan rather than in US dollars, supporting China’s ambition to make the yuan a major global currency.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have strong ties with the US, have slowly started showing interest in building ties with China. Saudi Arabia is China’s biggest supplier of crude oil, and China is the biggest destination of Saudi oil exports, and Beijing mediated an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that could ease Middle Eastern tension.
Saudi Arabia has also announced a $3.6-billion deal to buy 10% of China’s Rongsheng Petrochemical, which will result in it supplying 480,000 barrels per day of crude oil to the company.
2. Controversy hangs over some of the new BRICS members
The introduction of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran as new BRICS member states has raised alarm about the bloc’s stance on human rights issues.
All three countries are authoritarian regimes that have not prioritised the rights and equality of women.
The declaration signed by the five BRICS nations calls for promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“We agree to continue to treat all human rights, including the right to development in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis. We agree to strengthen cooperation on issues of common interests both within BRICS and in multilateral forum including the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, taking into account the necessity to promote, protect and fulfil human rights in a non-selective, non-politicised and constructive manner, and without double standards. We call for the respect of democracy and human rights,” it reads.
The DA said that, out of the current five members, only South Africa, Brazil and India could be considered democratic states. Extending an invitation to Iran and Saudi Arabia might “tip the scales in favour of an illiberal, oppressive, and autocratic approach to foreign relations and trade”.
The party pointed out that Iran had been helping Russia with weapons throughout the war in Ukraine, which it finds problematic. The DA also criticised Saudi Arabia’s disregard for media freedom.
“The treatment of women in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, represents an affront to South Africa’s steadfast commitment to human rights and gender equality. These countries have incurred global condemnation for their disregard for women’s most basic freedoms – manifested in women’s exclusion from public life and lack of legal rights.
“In addition, the Saudi government’s disdain for media freedom and political tolerance was exposed when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered at their consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The fact that Iran continues to provide military aid to Russia raises significant questions around the motives behind its admission to BRICS, suggesting a strong influence of Russian interests,” the DA said.
3. No support for Russia’s war in Ukraine
Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin used the BRICS platform to blame the war in Ukraine on the West. Putin, who participated in the summit virtually, said “some countries” – a clear reference to the US and other Western countries – were promoting their own hegemony in pursuit of a policy of ongoing colonialism and neocolonialism.
But the other four BRICS leaders who were physically present at the summit – President Cyril Ramaphosa, China’s President Xi Jinping, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi – did not publicly support his justification in their responses.
In his direct response to Putin, Ramaphosa merely said: “We agree that the war can only be resolved by negotiations, which you have always said you support.”
In his speech to the summit, Lula said: “We cannot avoid dealing with the main current conflict taking place in Ukraine with global effects.”
He emphasised that “Brazil’s historic stance is to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and all the United Nations’ purposes and principles” – principles that Russia has clearly violated by invading Ukraine, although Lula did not spell that out.
But he put the conflict in the context of a world order that had shifted over a few years from “a scenario of benign multipolarity towards one that resumes the obsolete mentality of the Cold War and geopolitical competition”.
Modi did not refer to the war in Ukraine at all in his address. Xi also did not refer to it directly, although he said BRICS should cooperate to maintain the momentum of development towards meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in a period of global turbulence.
In the declaration endorsed by the leaders, concerns are raised about continuing conflicts in many parts of the world.
“We stress our commitment to the peaceful resolution of differences and disputes through dialogue and inclusive consultations in a coordinated and cooperative manner and support all efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of crises.
“We recall our national positions concerning the conflict in and around Ukraine as expressed at the appropriate fora, including the United Nations Security Council and United Nations General Assembly.
“We note with appreciation relevant proposals of mediation and good offices aimed at peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy, including the African Leaders Peace Mission and the proposed path for peace,” it reads.
4. Calls to reform global governance structures for UN Security Council
Reforming the United Nations Security Council was one of the key points of discussion. The BRICS declaration endorsed a greater participation of emerging and developing countries in the UN, including its Security Council. However, Russia and China did not explicitly endorse South Africa, Brazil and India being given permanent Security Council seats.
“We support a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with a view to making it more democratic, representative, effective and efficient, and to increase the representation of developing countries in the Council’s memberships so that it can adequately respond to prevailing global challenges and support the legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, India and South Africa, to play a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council,” it reads.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres echoed these sentiments, saying today’s global governance structures reflected yesterday’s world.
“They were largely created in the aftermath of World War 2 when many African countries were still ruled by colonial powers and were not even at the table,” Guterres said on the final day of the summit.
This was particularly true of the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions, he said, referring to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
5. No BRICS currency on the cards, but key move towards de-dollarisation
The New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the BRICS Bank, has thrown its weight behind the plan by its founding member countries to push for the use of local currencies to facilitate trade and transactions. Using local currencies for trade and finance to rely less on the US dollar is not new on the agenda of the BRICS bloc.
On Thursday, Ramaphosa said finance ministers and central bank governors of BRICS nations have been tasked with considering the modalities of trading in local currencies.
“The summit agreed to task the BRICS finance ministers and central bank governors, as appropriate, to consider the issue of local currencies, payment instruments and platforms and report back to the BRICS leaders by the next summit,” he said.
Analysis: Can Ramaphosa defend SA’s constitutional ideals and global human rights?
As I scrolled through this week of jet touchdowns and the heads of state and global leaders in South Africa, there were so many I stopped counting. The most common image of President Cyril Ramaphosa has been of him beaming through the week of the BRICS Summit.
He was in his element, smiling as he welcomed leaders who touched down from dawn to dusk and in meetings that included business forums, BRICS meetings with African leaders and bilateral meetings with China, India and Brazil.
The 26-page Johannesburg Communiqué, which summarised the event, showed progress. BRICS is now BRICS-Plus. Six new countries have won admission, including two from Africa – Ethiopia and Egypt. The group is more significant than the G7 in many ways: together, it is much richer than when the summit started on Tuesday.
The total GDP of the bloc is just over 30% of global GDP; the combined GDP and population are larger than those of the G7. It controls most oil production now, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE admitted this week.
The New Development Bank (or the BRICS Bank in shorthand) will become a huge player as its capitalisation will be increased exponentially by the new member states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
South Africa has inked energy deals with China to end debilitating power cuts more quickly. It has cemented relations with India and kept Russia online. Russian President Vladimir Putin joined a virtual private network to avoid an International Criminal Court arrest warrant. By persuading him not to attend, South Africa avoided a mess.
India landed the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft on the moon’s dark side this week, and Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin died as Russian forces reportedly shot down his plane. The big BRICS men were flexing.
Most importantly, Ramaphosa kept the rest of the continent on the agenda, talking up the African Continental Free Trade Area, which could be among the world’s largest free trade zones.
It was a step change for the South African leader. After faltering on the Ukraine war, Ramaphosa allowed hawks in his Cabinet to let loose the Lady R debacle in 2022 (the docking and loading of a Russian ship in Simon’s Town with its identification system switched off) and play war games with Russia in February on the anniversary of the start of the war in Europe.
His reputation, especially with old allies in the West, was battered. But the head of state has been on good form since Sunday’s national address ahead of the BRICS Summit and the state visit by China’s President Xi Jinping. Ramaphosa was a convincing proponent of non-alignment. “We will not be drawn into a contest between global powers,” he said ahead of the summit.
He announced a European Union-SA Summit later in 2023 and hinted that South Africa will still host the Agoa Summit in November. (Agoa is a duty-free access agreement with the US worth US$2.7-billion a year to SA.) A group of US senators want the Agoa Summit moved to a friendlier African country, but South Africa has lobbied hard to keep access to the valuable US market.
South Africa’s speeches throughout the week set out a more innovative multipolar geopolitical strategy. In the Financial Times, Alec Russell said foreign policy is increasingly “à la carte”, meaning that geopolitics aligned to spheres of global superpower influence is rapidly declining.
The political and business leader Mcebisi Jonas, writing in the Daily Maverick recently, said South Africa’s international policy needed to be more nimble and multipolar.
Here’s the flip side, though
The 2022 Democracy Report of the V-Dem Institute in Sweden found that democratic practice has regressed to 1989 levels. Dictatorships are rising; freedom of expression is shrinking.
Protests were held at the BRICS Summit this week (but at a faraway dog park in Sandton) – a red alert for civil society on the effective right to protest.
South Africa is one of a few of the expanded group of 11 BRICS countries where people can protest and one of four with genuinely free media. The BRICS group is not great company from a human rights perspective.
Ramaphosa’s challenge now will be to protect democratic space and practice in BRICS. Other reports show that 70% of the world’s people now labour under forms of autocracy.
On our continent, coups in the Sahel region are the order of the day: there have been seven since 2020, the most recent in Niger. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, won a Nobel Peace Prize but is often at war.
From a human rights perspective, the BRICS club is much less attractive than it is as an economics and trade group. Where it does offer heft is to change global financial architecture and global governance, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was also in Johannesburg this week. Ramaphosa will have to be a deft negotiator to hold up the torch for South Africa’s constitutional ideals and global human rights while remaining a linchpin of the BRICS group. – DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.