At the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), South Africa has a record of defending human rights-abusing regimes. (1) South Africa admits that it opposes "naming and shaming" countries over their rights records, but insists that internationally it is a defender of human rights. South Africa's former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad has argued that if one were to exclude country-specific resolutions and instead looked at South Africa's other actions at the UNHRC, South Africa's commitment to defending human rights "can never be challenged." (2) In other words, if one excluded Agenda Item 4, "Human rights situations that require the Council's attention," and judged South Africa on the remaining nine, mostly thematically organized agenda items, South Africa's record would appear first-rate. In this study, I examine South Africa's UNHRC positions on one thematic human rights area: civil and political rights.
Quantitative studies of human rights voting at the Human Rights Council are not unanimous but allow the tentative prediction that, because South Africa is a democracy and because it respects human rights domestically, it will likely support civil and political rights at the UNHRC. (3) Some theories of international relations provide further grounds for expecting South Africa to support civil and political rights at the UNHRC. The expectation that democracies will support international human rights exists in liberal international relations theory, (4) but is most prominent in constructivism. Constructivists see national identity as an important determinant of a state's international behavior. From a constructivist perspective, officials adopt certain policies because they chime, and because they believe they should chime, with the identity they see their state as holding. (5) The identity of a state implies its preferences, interests, and resultant actions. (6) While national identity shapes foreign policy choices, leaders also justify their choices by referring to the relevant elements of the national identity. (7) We should therefore expect democracies to support human rights internationally--such support is a reflection of the values and self-understandings that predominate in democratic countries.
National identity can change, which means that a state's interests and expected international behavior will also change. (8) The factors that uphold and change a state's identity are both domestic and external and mutually influence each other. Constructivists see states as having more agency than do, say, neorealists, but view states as nevertheless restricted in rearticulating their identity. As Ted Hopf points out, "Choices are rigorously constrained by the webs of understanding of the practices, identities, and interests of other actors that prevail in particular historical contexts." (9)
An initial glance at South Africa's identity suggests that it is likely to be an international defender of civil and political rights. Human rights were central to the fight against apartheid and have remained so in postapartheid South Africa. The 1955 Freedom Charter articulated the core principles of the antia-partheid struggle, envisioning a country in which "all shall enjoy equal human rights." The end of apartheid and South Africa's democratization are held up as a victory of human rights over racial hatred and discrimination, an achievement South Africans celebrate every year as Human Rights Day and Freedom Day. For South Africa's diplomats, the country's Bill of Rights is supposed to be their "Bible," their guide to creating "a better world with more justice and more human rights." (10) Indeed, ever since Nelson Mandela declared in 1993 that human rights will be the light to guide democratic South Africa's foreign policy, foreign policy officials have offered assurances of South Africa's international commitment to human rights. (11) South Africa has defined itself as above while, additionally, the international community has tried to hold South Africa to its pronouncements on human rights and has expected its foreign policy to be consistent with its human rights struggle against apartheid. (12)
Newly democratic South Africa started off with a foreign policy devoted to human rights, but before long this commitment was scaled back. A crucial moment in this redirection took place in 1995 when Mandela called for sanctions against Nigeria after the Sani Abacha regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. Mandela's call left South Africa isolated--the Organization of African Unity described Mandela's actions as "not an African way to deal with an African problem." (13) As South Africa became less strident in defending international human rights, other foreign policy priorities came to the fore. One change was more emphasis on pursuing economic opportunities, (14) another was a stronger association with Africa. Laurie Nathan remarked that Thabo Mbeki's approach to international affairs was grounded in three commitments: democracy, Africanism, and anti-imperialism. The latter two were rarely in conflict, but sometimes clashed with an adherence to democracy. When this happened, Nathan argues, democracy usually gave way. (15) A more recent assessment found that South African foreign policy has continued to become less liberal and increasingly "counter-hegemonic," "Third Worldist," "solidaristic," and "anti-imperialist." (16) Domestically, alongside a liberal political culture, "liberationist" political values (influenced by socialism and third world nationalism) have long been present. (17) Between 1995 and 2014, there was a 19 percent drop in South Africans' support for democracy. (18) In addition, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) seems to have become more anti-imperialist. The ANC's 2015 foreign policy discussion document, whose authors included past and present cabinet ministers, (19) complains that the collapse of socialism "altered completely the balance of forces in favor of imperialism" and describes Chinese human rights activists as U.S.-directed "counter-revolutionaries" and pro-democracy protests in Russia as "counter-revolutionary." (20) Significantly, in 2011, South Africa joined Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). BRICS is a grouping that pushes for economic cooperation, multilateralism, and global institutional reform and occasionally hints that it is a counterweight to the West, perhaps even a foundation for an alternative framework of global governance. (21) A leaked diplomatic cable revealed that, at the UNHRC, the United States regards South Africa as a delegation "unfriendly" toward itself. (22) Friendship with the BRICS countries, however, considering that two BRICS members are authoritarian, has constrained South Africa's ability to stand up for human rights. (23)
Despite South Africa's anti-imperial posture, human rights remain very much part of how South Africa defines itself. For instance, in 2017, South Africa's deputy foreign minister declared that "respect for human rights has been the defining feature of South Africa's political history. Our struggle in this regard spans over 350 years and therefore the Government and its peoples will never abandon the values it has cherished for so long." (24)
How will tension between human rights and anti-imperialism translate into action on civil and political rights at the UNHRC? Two options seem likely: considerable inconsistency or a tepid middle course. However, in this article I show that South Africa's actions ranged from failing to uphold civil and political rights to supporting their restriction. In other words, there is little reflection of the vaunted human rights part of South Africa's national identity.
This article consists of two main parts. First, I discuss South Africa's record on civil and political rights at the UNHRC. In the second part, I weigh likely explanations of South Africa's UNHRC record, arguing that South Africa's record is more regressive than South Africa's associations with Africa, China, and the Global South dictate. Anti-imperialist commitments explain South Africa's actions at the UNHRC, but this anti-imperialism cannot be explained by means of a national identity argument. Rather, the signs point to the influence of key foreign policy officials with strong anti-imperialist beliefs. In the concluding section, I consider the theoretical significance of South Africa's UNHRC record.
Given the large number of UNHRC resolutions--from 2006 (when the UNHRC first started) to 2016, the UNHRC adopted 868 resolutions--it is necessary to narrow the scope of this article in a number of ways. I examine solutions whose titles indicate that they are about civil and political rights. Civil and political rights protect individuals against undue restrictions of their liberty, and guarantee their participation in civil society and the political process. However, I excluded resolutions that focus on specific identities (e.g., gender, race, or sexual orientation) that are often placed in a civil rights frame because their focus often is only indirectly related to participating in political life. The following are examples of such resolutions: Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Women focused on women and health, (25) the 2015 version focused on culture and family life, (26) and the 2014 resolution concentrated on the economic and workplace dimensions of discrimination against women. (27) At the UN, South Africa has been a leader on antiracism and in June 2011 led the UNHRC to adopt the first-ever UN Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). Will the exclusion of identity-based resolutions therefore not make South Africa's record look less supportive of human rights? Not really. South Africa uses racism resolutions to attack the West, (28) while letting slide "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance" elsewhere such as its...