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South Africa’s misguided policy on Syria has let us all down


Zeenat Adam is a human rights activist based in Johannesburg. She formerly served in the South African foreign service and has worked in Iraq and Qatar. She also served as Director of Foreign Service for the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean Islands. She presently works as an independent international relations strategist.

As South Africa’s term on the UN Security Council comes to an end, an assessment of its position on Syria reveals a country that has squandered an opportunity to lead with principle.

South Africa, nearing the end of its third term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has found itself entangled in the truculent power dynamics of the five permanent members (USA, UK, France, Russia and China).

Upon its election to the Council, it was hoped and expected that President Cyril Ramaphosa would seize the opportunity to restore South Africa’s human rights-based foreign policy. The case of Syria has, however, unmasked South Africa’s failings and its inability to maintain an independent foreign policy.

While the South African statements at the UN have been consistent in affirming that there can be no military solution to the situation in Syria, the ambiguity of its policy is reflected in its continued support for the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad in the name of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Statements by South Africa continue to lay culpability for the crisis at the feet of “non-state armed groups”, while failing to acknowledge the complexities of the conflict and obfuscating the flagrant violations of human rights by the Syrian regime, Russia and their allies.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organisation, has documented human rights atrocities by all parties to the conflict since March 2011. According to the network, the civilian death toll from March 2011 to July 2020 stands at 226,546.

The Syrian and Iranian militias allied to the regime are recorded as having been responsible for more than 88% of these killings. Three percent of the deaths are attributed to Russian forces, while ISIS is recorded as being responsible for just over 2%, and the armed opposition, or Syrian National Army, are noted to have been responsible for less than 2% of the total number of civilians killed.

The statistics on death from torture reveal the chilling, vicious nature of the regime, which is recorded as having killed 98% of over 14,000 civilians through torture in the same period, using skills acquired when Syria ran black sites for the Americans in their war on terror. The network records that at least 140,000 people are still detained, or forcibly disappeared, at the hands of the regime.

Russia and China have employed the veto on 16 resolutions pertaining to Syria, exposing the Security Council’s failure to protect civilians and establish peace and security. The Syrian regime has consistently disregarded resolutions requiring them to stop indiscriminate attacks, some of which include the use of barrel bombs. The most glaring unheeded resolutions have been those pertaining to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains that Syria remains the largest refugee crisis in the world. The years of war have resulted in the displacement of more than half the Syrian population – 6.6 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries; a further 6.7 million people are internally displaced; 11 million need humanitarian assistance.

Since 2014, the UN has been authorised to transport humanitarian aid across the Turkish border into Syria. The mandate has had to be reviewed annually and has usually been extended for a period of 12 months. In January 2020, however, the mandate was only extended for a period of six months, following objections from Russia and China.

As the July 2020 deadline for the mandate loomed, the Security Council was fraught with deep divisions. Russia vetoed the first resolution for the extension of the mandate for 12 months and the reopening of the Iraq crossing point, tabled by Germany. Reinforcing Assad’s hold on Syria, both China and Russia, supported by South Africa, argued that aid should be directed through Damascus. A counter-resolution was tabled by Russia, with the argument that the recent Caesar Act passed by the USA, imposing sanctions against Syria, was the cause of the humanitarian catastrophe – ignoring the near-decade of war and the Syrian regime’s role in stifling its own population.

Ultimately, the council agreed to a third resolution, for a limited extension of the mandate, with only one humanitarian corridor to remain open from Turkey.

The UN estimates that over four million people living outside the areas controlled by the regime are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The Syrian government claims that the humanitarian aid ends up in the hands of terrorists and that its sovereignty is violated by the limits on its jurisdiction over the northern territories. Damascus has, however, routinely politicised the delivery of aid by blocking humanitarian corridors, effectively employing starvation as a weapon of war.

South Africa, with its policy and cosy relations with Syria’s allies at the Security Council, has tacitly endorsed this strategy.

Early post-apartheid foreign policy saw South Africa playing a leading role as a champion for human rights, as it set the standard for mediation and dialogue. At the apex of South Africa’s foreign relations, the country engaged strongly on matters of international concern, with fair reasoning derived from the deployment of qualified cadres who judiciously scrutinised threats to global peace and security from an objective perspective.

The case of the War on Iraq and the preceding unscrupulous machinations by the US at the UN is a prime example of how South Africa demonstrated its unwillingness to be swayed in a particular direction without careful, independent consideration of the facts on the ground.

The shift in foreign policy, to one that is centred on economic development, appears to have clouded the objectives SA previously sought to reach, and the domestic decline into kleptocracy has been reflected in its international relations, as senior figures have allegedly eyed lucrative deals that would line their pockets.

We called for the severing of diplomatic ties with Syria for its mass killing of civilians; for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court; and for the arrest of perpetrators of atrocities in the Syrian regime so that they might be tried for crimes against humanity.

This, instead of being guided by a moral code that would remain faithful to the tenets of the South African Constitution and a vision for a world free of violent conflict and atrocities.

As leadership within the diplomatic ranks dwindled, South Africa has maintained superficial relevance by bullying its way into international governance structures on the back of post-apartheid accolades, and on the elitist and entitled assumption that South Africa is representative of the African continent.

Mature democracies were alert to these ambitions. Some were sceptical, while opportunistic nations found easy access to a malleable marionette. South Africa’s vulnerability became more apparent upon its inclusion within the BRICS conglomerate. With an economy far inferior to its counterparts, the country has struggled to garner respect within the bloc, and instead continues to make concessions to the mightier powers.

Growing polarisation between nations has overshadowed the shared values and history that South Africa previously enjoyed with its BRICS partners. Where the country’s struggle history once found echoes with the former socialist states, and where its embrace of democratic principles found resonance with the (albeit populist) democracies of India and Brazil, these bonds in the BRICS family have faded as global schisms become more entrenched. This has been visible in the votes at the Security Council over Syria.

In 2018, the South African-based Stop the Bombing Campaign, of which I was part, wrote an open letter to Ramaphosa, ahead of the BRICS summit, urging him to reconsider South Africa’s policy on Syria.

We called for the severing of diplomatic ties with Syria for its mass killing of civilians; for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court; and for the arrest of perpetrators of atrocities in the Syrian regime so that they might be tried for crimes against humanity.

The activists further asked Ramaphosa to apply pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin “to halt his country’s destructive role in Syria, including through the use of experimental weaponry, and instead commit to sustainable peace building”.

The group was invited to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) three months after publishing the open letter, and a meeting was held with the team responsible for South Africa’s interaction with the UN’s Human Rights Council. These officials were incapable of expressing views on South Africa’s bilateral relations with Syria or the positions within BRICS, exposing the nature of DIRCO’s silo system of governance. Assurances that a follow-up meeting would be arranged to include representatives from the other units never materialised.

Since 2018, South Africa’s policy on Syria has deteriorated, as it continues to seek affirmation from its new masters in BRICS. Had it maintained a strong independent foreign policy, South Africa could have provided a more nuanced perspective and offered more sustainable solutions and contributions to conflict transformation and peace building.

Instead, South Africa has failed us all, especially those who look to it for its record of overcoming the worst of human atrocities. Its term at the Security Council has been squandered and its lack of a principled foreign policy exposed. DM


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