SA foreign policy should focus on rights: HRW

2026

A leading rights watchdog is urging South Africa‘s new government to restore the country’s image by putting human rights at the centre of its foreign policy.

South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy and a diplomatic heavyweight, has come under fire for taking a soft line on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and countries such as Sudan and Myanmar accused of widespread rights abuses.

President-elect Jacob Zuma has taken a hard line on Zimbabwe as leader of the ruling African National Congress in contrast to former President Thabo Mbeki, Reuters noted.

Georgette Gagnon, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), urged Zuma in a letter to seize on the opportunity to help introduce democratic reforms in Zimbabwe as the new unity government tries to rebuild the ruined country.

She said Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was still carrying out abuses such as politically motivated prosecutions of opponents and had failed to investigate allegations of torture.

“With new leadership in South Africa there is great expectation for a rebalancing of policy towards South Africa using its moral, political and economic authority and leadership in southern Africa to promote respect for human rights, good governance and democracy in Zimbabwe,” HRW said in the letter, released to the media.

In recent years, including a two-year stint as a UN Security Council member, South Africa sided with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, Gagnon wrote.

Critics say South Africa, which holds itself up as a model of democracy and human rights after decades of apartheid, has damaged its image with its foreign policy.

“Your recent election offers an opportunity to change that misguided policy and restore credibility to South Africa‘s foreign policy,” HRW said.

South Africa‘s refusal to give Tibet‘s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference of Nobel laureates in March was widely condemned. Critics accused the government of caving in to pressure from China, which it denied.

SA`s foreign policy

The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office in its May 2007 country profile summed up its view of SA`s foreign policy as being “focussed on conflict resolution in Africa, and developing partnerships with other like-minded nations to present the South’s case in multinational fora. It has backed its political activities by providing troops for peace support operations…”

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad amplified this in a speech to the Diplomatic Corps in December 2007, by saying the country`s foreign policy fully reflected the ruling African National Congress` slogan of a “better South Africa, a better Africa and a better world”. Pahad said this reflected “the internationalist tradition of the ANC since its founding in 1912”.

As such, SA`s strategic approach remained “to achieve an international order with greater security, peace, dialogue and greater equilibrium between poor and rich countries,” Pahad added.

“As we seek to do so, we are cutely conscious that South Africa`s role in the world today is a function of a complex of both national and international factors which intersect in the current conjuncture in a most challenging way.”

Factors that Pahad said formed the basis of SA`s approach were:

Ø      Securing, protecting and advancing SA`s national interests and national sovereignty;

Ø      Advancing regional and continental interests including the African Agenda;

Ø      Working to eradicate poverty, including gendered poverty; the growing income, wealth and asset gaps between rich and poor and dealing with the multiple forms of inequality nationally, regionally, continentally and globally;

Ø      Addressing the negative consequences of globalisation including underdevelopment, uneven-development, unemployment and the challenges of the global division of labour and determining how best countries can position themselves with respect to globalisation;

Ø      Strengthening the culture of human rights, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law including the independence of the judiciary;

Ø      Promoting democracy and strengthening the institutions of democracy and good governance;

Ø      Democratising global multilateral institutions of governance;

Ø      Promoting pro-poor, ecologically sensitive sustainable growth and development;

Ø      Promoting peace and security across Africa and the globe, especially the Middle East.

Ø      Promoting South-South co-operation and solidarity; and

Ø      Challenging neo-liberalism and identifying the core elements of a progressive political discourse and creating and nurturing an African and a global progressive political agenda.



Zuma has said SA`s foreign policy would remain unchanged.