South Africa has stridently maintained that it is neutral in the one-year-old Russia-Ukraine conflict. If that stance could ever be maintained with integrity, 17 February 2023 marked its end with the commencement of Exercise Mosi II.
Last week the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) welcomed Russian and Chinese navy vessels with open arms to conduct “a multinational maritime exercise” intended to “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China”.
The original itinerary involved conducting exercises relating to “interoperability of the naval systems, joint disaster systems management enhancement, maritime cooperation and anti-piracy exercises”.
However, it has since come to light that Russia may also use this opportunity to demonstrate its hypersonic missile, Zircon, which is reportedly unstoppable as it flies low and fast, evading detection by radar and rendering countermeasures ineffective.
In addition, and more disturbingly, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise says that Exercise Mosi II “will serve as a platform for the three nations to share operational skills, expertise and experience”.
The military exercise is timed to coincide almost exactly with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. That invasion has been characterised by the conduct of hostilities on Russia’s part that is indifferent to whether targets are civilians, combatants or even protected objects and buildings.
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The UN Secretary-General’s report to the United Nations Security Council revealed that hospitals and schools had already come under attack within one month of the conflict. The Russian-Ukraine conflict also forms the subject of an ongoing International Criminal Court investigation for breaches of the Rome Statute.
South Africa abstained from voting in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution, which demanded that Russia withdraw from Ukraine and cease using force in Ukraine immediately.
Article 41 of the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts obliges a state to “cooperate to bring to an end through lawful means any serious breach” of international law. In addition, it prohibits states from rendering any aid or assistance that would maintain the situation.
While there might be challenges in imposing liability on South Africa for its failure to uphold this obligation, there can be no doubt that in hosting a military exercise designed to boast of and enhance the military capabilities of an aggressor — Russia — South Africa plays fast and loose with its own international legal duties.
Whatever else might be understood by this military exercise, it utterly refutes any credible notion of a neutral stance.
Instead, South Africa declares its support and assistance for a state that commits sickening international war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the ultimate crime of aggression.
Following the trials of Nuremberg, the Nuremberg judgment declared that: “To initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.
We have a duty as a country, not just because we have suffered grave human rights violations ourselves, but as a responsible member of the international world community, to condemn such violence and utter disregard for international law, human life and dignity.
South Africa’s actions fly in the face of our constitutional values, morals and ethics. South Africa does not have to participate in a General Assembly vote for everyone to see that it has chosen a side. DM