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23 August 2017 00:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Lauren Hutton

The doldrums of South African foreign policy

  • Lauren Hutton
    Lauren-Hutton.jpg
    Lauren Hutton

    Lauren Hutton is an independent consultant with more than 10 years’ experience working on peace and security in Africa. She has worked for think tanks such as the Institute for Security Studies and the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), as well as operational agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council and Danish Demining Group.

When South Africa takes the stage at the UN Security Council on the 9th of June, it will be while holding the hands of Sudan, Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria and Rwanda and telling the world that we South Africans do not believe in global justice and the need for African leaders to be held accountable for the mass killings of their people.

The spoof-like performance of South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation on Al Jazeera last week made many South Africans cringe. Finding out that the strategic orientation of the country is based on whether or not one has a hole in one’s head, some weird family values that include calling your children spoilt to prove political allegiance and a bizarre lack of interest in the global superpower, was more than just surreal. It was a clear indication South African foreign policy is ruled by a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance and that the ANC has purposefully created a policy vacuum in which the values of the state on the global stage bear little resemblance to the values enshrined in our Constitution.

South Africa’s foreign policy is not often a topic of hot debate. We’re distracted with the wide range of social issues that are tearing at the very fragile unity of our country. The government and apparatus of the state seems further and further away from the people they claim to rule. Governance is perverted for personal gain and it is difficult to see any sense of values and morals being upheld by those claiming positions that represent us. Some might adopt a Machiavellian-type argument that there is no place for morality in politics; the ends justify the means and some singular, reductive thinking along those lines. But if there are no principles or values underlying our politics, then what are we saying about the state of our society? Our politics should represent our society and nowhere is this clearer than in our foreign policy positions.

This is a great TED talk by Bhutan's Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, in which he explains about how his country is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative, meaning that they actually off-set the less then green practices of other countries in their neighbourhood. Bhutan’s entire development theory is based on the “Gross National Happiness” index which values and prioritizes overall well-being above financial wealth and makes economic growth only a public good when it actually makes the public feel more good. This tiny country with a fragile democracy is basing their domestic and foreign politics on a sense of humanity and placing the good of humanity at the core of everything they do. What a wonderful and inspiring thing.

Can you imagine a South Africa in which a respect and care for humanity was at the core of our domestic and foreign policies? Can you imagine a South Africa where cars for presidential spouses or expensive rental apartments for minor government officials were considered less important than having sufficient food and water to sustain our population? Can you imagine a South Africa where intellect is prioritized over loyalty? Can you imagine a South Africa that stands on the global stage and says we will defend the rights and freedoms of those without voice to do so? A South Africa who leads by example and calls to order those other leaders on the continent who choose to use violence without consequence and who decimate generations of their own civilians for personal gain? That is a South Africa that I could be proud of.

But unfortunately when South Africa takes the stage at the UN Security Council on the 9th of June, it will be while holding the hands of Sudan, Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria and Rwanda and telling the world that we South Africans do not believe in global justice and the need for African leaders to be held accountable for the mass killings of their people. South Africa is part of an African Union committee going to address the UNSC on the AU position on the International Criminal Court. That position includes postponing/ cancelling the ICC cases against incumbent African leaders and putting forward the roadmap for African states to withdraw from the ICC.

When South Africa failed to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last year, there was a pretty robust public debate about it, accompanied by a clear abuse of executive authority and a show from the ANC on who their preferred bedfellows are. Next week, South Africa will take that position again to the international stage and show the world that whatever lip service has been paid by successive governments since the 1940s to respect for human rights remains nothing more than that and we continue to value blood money over principles. The 9th of June will be a dark day for South Africans who believed, even for a short time, that our government would protect and defend the value of humanity. And be sure, that if the government won’t stand up for the hundreds of thousands of people who continue to suffer in Darfur, those who huddle in caves in South Kordofan to avoid the regular aerial bombing raids and the masses of Kenyans crippled by intimidation, violence, corrupt and ethnically-defined politics, they sure as hell won’t care about your shelter, water, food or education needs any time soon.

There are definitely problems with the ICC. But the problem is not the unfair targeting of African leaders. Cases targeting African leaders have been referred to the ICC – in the case of Kenya after the national mechanisms proved incapable of dealing with the investigation and for Sudan after the UNSC requested the court to do so due to the astounding levels of violence witnessed in Darfur. Benin and Tanzania, in the UNSC at the time, voted for the referral of Sudan to the ICC. DRC, Uganda and CAR’s own governments referred cases in those states to the ICC. 43 African countries are signatories to, and 30 African states ratified, the Rome Statute that created the ICC. 47 African states were involved in drafting the Rome Statute. More than 800 African civil society organizations are part of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

The about turn in the African position says more about the values of the current generation of leaders on the continent than about the biased state of justice in the world. Yes, the US and Israel did not sign the Rome Statute and continue to commit egregious crimes against humanity. Yes, they should be held to account. But just because there are other bullies on the block does not make it okay for you to beat on your brother. Commitment to international justice is a way for African leaders to hold themselves to a higher standard and not be measured by the lowest common denominator of global consciousness. It’s a gloomy global outlook when European states are struggling to show respect for the rights of refugees; the US is mired in a foreign policy of moral malaise; China, rights and freedoms are seldom words linked in a positive way and our African leaders would rather protect their fortunes and shake hands in blood than hold themselves to a higher standard that is based on the well-being and respect of their people.

Oh, for the love of Bhutan! DM

  • Lauren Hutton
    Lauren-Hutton.jpg
    Lauren Hutton

    Lauren Hutton is an independent consultant with more than 10 years’ experience working on peace and security in Africa. She has worked for think tanks such as the Institute for Security Studies and the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), as well as operational agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council and Danish Demining Group.

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