The International Emergence of South Africa and South African Civil Society

Adam Nord contributes this post illustrating and reflecting on the growing prominence of South Africa and its developing civil society in international legal affairs of significance for the entire globe.   In his position as Lobbying and Engagement Manager at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, based in Johannesburg, Adam plays an active role in influencing high-level decision makers with local voices from civil society.


By Adam Nord

Three diplomatic events in 2011 vividly demonstrate the emergent prominence of South Africa in global affairs, and equally so the motivation for an equally emergent South African civil society. Coming at nearly the start of 2011 in March, South Africa held a pivotal role at the United Nations Security Council with its unprecedented vote in support of Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing the protection of civilians in Libya by all means short of “boots on the ground.” This unequivocal resolution forLibya came in a moment when the world was witnessing Colonel Kadahfi’s public calls to attack and execute the “cockroaches” and “rats” of the civilian protests turned militia upraising. There was a widely shared, substantial concern that humanity was once again verging on the next mass casualties of civilians. Along with the vote by Lebanon in support of Resolution 1973 (2011), which echoed the Arab League condemnation of the violence led by Kadahfi, South Africa’s ‘yea’ vote was viewed within Security Council politics and by the global public as an endorsement of the military intervention’s legitimacy to protect civilians on African soil.

The long history of a warm relationship between the Libyan leader and the political leadership of South Africa doubtlessly makeSouth Africa’s Security Council vote a challenging political decision and even surprised some observers as breaking with South Africa’s trend of soft diplomacy stances. This became all the more evident as controversy and criticisms later emerged over NATO’s broad and expanding interpretation for the military mandate granted by over the Resolution 1973 (2011). With NATO involvement increasingly geared towards actively supporting what became known as the Transitional National Council,South Africa wavered in public statements on Libya but ultimately confirmed its decision to back the Security Council resolution.

The controversy around NATO’s intervention also revealed that civil society in South Africa had a less then unified position on the situation inLibya. While a number of groups were vocal in calling on South Africa to demonstrate it democratic leadership by supporting the Security Council resolution, many others remained silent or were in hindsight critical of South Africa when the NATO role enforcing the Resolution 1973 (2011) was seen as going too far. Critics often recalled the unilateral military interventions in Iraq, while those defending the Security Council resolution brought to mind the impossible to know “what-if” UN inaction had led to another Rwanda or Srebrenica. Later in the yearSouth Africawould cite these political debates subsequent to the NATO developments in public explanations for abstaining from a similar Security Council draft Resolution on the protection of civilians in Syria which was ultimately defeated by vetoes fromRussiaandChina.

South Africa further achieved political prominence in the global climate change discussion as the host of the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) at Durban in November for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. While COP17 is not the first high-level UN event hosted by South Africa, and far less glamorous than the FIFA World Cup it hosted in 2010, the significance comes withCOP17 being regarded as a key arena in the debate on climate change issues between developing countries and developed countries. As with many events the country hosts, South African is widely seen as not only representing its national interests but also broadly representing “African” interests and South Africa has even promoted a commitment to marking COP17 as a “people’sCOP”. However this perceived role also starkly draws the contrasts that while most ofAfrica struggles at being considered developing counties, the significant development progress of South Africa firmly places it in the role of an emerging economic and political power. Other African countries and civil society inSouth Africa need to be cautious of South Africa’s presumed role as the voice for the continent on climate change issues, particularly as a leading carbon emitter due the country’s heavy reliance on power plants fired by nationally mined coal.

With the concerns of an average citizen in South Africa being more immediately focused on employment and basic service delivery and the government trying desperately too keep up with an ever increasing national demand for electricity, the environmental sector of civil society in South Africa is still nascent. As one instructive example, Greenpeace International with over 32 years of experience only established a Greenpeace Africa regional office in South Africain 2008. Locally grown environmental movements are also gradually emerging but for the moment remain without widespread recognition or influence inSouth Africa. Within this context the hosting of COP17 also provides a catalyst for environmental groups to both bond together and grab the national and international spotlight, at least temporarily. The civil society recognition of this moment spurred the formation of the ad-hoc “C17 Committee” and represents a leading example of groups coming together in an effort to promote the emergent voice of civil society as an alternative to the official climate change policies ofSouth Africaboth nationally and internationally. Toward this shared goal for COP17 the C17 Committee coordinates information sharing on the key messages of individual groups, the organization of a “climate train” acrossSouth Africaleading to Durban and an alternative space outside the official COP17 venues for use open use by civil society.

In 2011 the most powerful example of the emergence of South African civil society in relation to the emergence of South Africa in international affairs comes in the context of the South Africa sponsored resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity at the United Nations Human Rights Council. It began within South Africa introducing a draft resolution with the lengthy and confusing title of The imperative need to respect the established procedures and practices of the United Nations General Assembly in the elaboration on new norms and standards and their subsequent integration into existing international human rights law. This draft resolution explicitly sought to “establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group to elaborate new concepts, such as sexual orientation, and others which may emerge in this regard, defining such concepts and their scope and parameters in international human rights law, prior to their integration into existing norms and standards of international human rights law” and also proposed that “the aforementioned working group shall be the single modality and framework of the United Nations Human Rights Council within which all the deliberations on sexual orientation including other initiatives and action shall be undertaken.”

The resolution came amidst widespread hostility toward gender identity rights in many African countries, including efforts by some African governments to “outlaw” homosexuality such as in Uganda where a draft law was introduced that would make being a homosexual a crime punished by the death penalty. In this context the draft resolution was widely read by civil society and diplomats alike as a thinly veiled attempt by the African Group of countries at the Human Rights Council to have sexual orientation and gender identity treated as a new area of human rights that should be considered as contested, therefore not universal, and furthermore that sexual orientation and gender identity issues should be confined to a limited working group and not discussed at the Human Rights Council general sessions or at other human rights mechanisms. Simply for being so incongruent with widely accepted human rights standards the draft resolution might have even been summarily dismissed had it not be the accompanying shock of South Africa’s sponsorship in apparent direct contradiction to the Constitution of South Africa which contains perhaps the most explicit recognition and protection of sexual orientation and gender identity rights in any national constitution.

Almost immediately LGBTI and other human rights groups inSouth Africawhere informed of the draft resolution and civil society began responding both individually and in concert with each other. Rather quietly but with extraordinary speed South Africa faced a surge of political pressure from local civil society, international coalitions and other countries’ diplomats. In their public responses at the Human Rights Council the diplomats from South Africa took a straight faced approach, which at times seemed difficult to maintain, in earnestly explaining that South Africa always had the best intentions and were wholly surprised that the initial draft could have been negatively interpreted as seeking to diminish the human rights of LGBTI individuals.South Africafurther positioned itself as very appreciative of the constructive comments on the first draft resolution received from both civil society and other countries.

This combination of civil society advocacy and diplomatic influence resulted in a stunning 180 degree turn about of South Africa on their draft resolution at the Human Rights Council. South Africa completely rewrote the second draft of the resolution starting with a new title of Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity which unequivocally states that  “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in that Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.” The resolution further expressed “grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity” and also requeststhe High Commissioner to commission a study to be finalised by December 2011, to document discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, in all regions of the world, and how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” The dramatic change went so far as to even provoke an Egyptian diplomat to rhetorically asked South Africa whether they where introducing a new, separate draft resolution and when South Africa would be continuing discussions of the previously introduced draft resolution.

In the subsequent informal consultations by South Africaonly minor revisions occurred and what began as a nightmare resolution passed in jubilant celebration by human rights groups on a vote of 23 to 19 with 3 abstentions..

South Africa’s nearly unprecedented reversal came about in large part from the direct engagement and lobbying of South African LGBTI and other human rights groups. Their victory was starkly profiled at the occasion of the final Human Rights Council vote when Nigeria, on behalf of the African Group of countries, vigorously disparaged South Africa for breaking with the tradition of African Group consensus at the United Nations by maintaining South Africa’s sponsorship of the final resolution in opposition to the votes of all except three other countries in Africa (Mauritius supported the resolution, while Burkina Faso and Zambia abstained, Libya had previously been suspended from the Human Rights Council). The diplomat from Nigeria further shook diplomatic protocols by declaring that he personally “knew” that 90% South Africans would oppose the resolution for confirming the human rights of LGBTI individuals.

These three snapshots vividly represent the emergent prominence of South Africa in global affairs, and further show an increasingly emergent civil society in South Africa that is equally motivated to ensure their government’s foreign policy reflect and champion principles and practices also being sought in the national policy.

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