South Africa’s human rights’ stance appears to lack discernment
IN OCTOBER I had the opportunity to meet Yeonmi Park at the One Young World Summit. Yeonmi is from North Korea. At nine-years-old she watched her friend’s mother being executed for watching a Hollywood movie. At fourteen she and her family escaped from North Korea but shortly after crossing the Chinese border her father died and she had to bury him in silence so that nobody would find them. While in China, an official tried to rape her but he was stopped by Yeonmi’s mother – offering herself in place of her daughter. Yeonmi is now 21-years-old.
As she brought her speech to a close, calling for global pressure on China to stop the repatriation of North Koreans, she broke into tears. “When I was crossing the Gobi Desert, scared of dying, I thought that nobody in this world cared; that only the stars were with me. But you have listened to my story, you have cared.” Except – we haven’t. If we accept our government to be a representation of our country, our people, and our collective decisions then South Africans do not care about Yeonmi or her fellow North Koreans. And if we do not accept the government to be our representatives then we should not be allowing them to lead us; we are accountable.
Last Tuesday, the UN voted to refer North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court. Voting in favour were 111 countries, 19 against and 55 did not vote. South Africa argued against the motion, and then abstained from voting.
This is unusual for South Africa because it has a good track of supporting motions against human rights abuses. Last Sunday, the UN Human Rights Council voted on establishing an investigation into war crimes in Gaza – South Africa voted in favour.
And it is perfectly normal, often necessary, for government to make unpopular decisions for the better good of the country and its people. But what future interest do we have in endorsing cruelty such as that of Kim Jong-un? We don’t need to remember our own great leadership to know that not standing against unimpeded murder, oppression and imprisonment is wrong.
Yet China doesn’t want us to stand. We have sold our freewill and moral fibre under the banner of “good international economic relations”, but even the banner is false. Good economics takes care of the people and abstaining from voting against North Korea does not make economic sense. While partnering with China can bring huge volumes of investment, it is clear that the quality of this investment and its conditions are highly problematic.
We might make one powerful friend but we are quickly isolating the rest. In September the Global Peace Summit – the first summit of Nobel Peace laureates to be held in Africa – was suspended and moved from Cape Town to Rome because the government would not grant a visa to the Dalai Lama. More pressing than the actual decisions that the government made regarding North Korea and the Dalai Lama is that they are not the decisions that represent the people of South Africa.
Such a disconnect between a government and its people is a huge warning sign for any other meaningful investors.
This is clear for all to see and such a disconnect between a government and its people is a huge warning sign for any other meaningful investors looking for a stable and forward-looking economy to invest in.
In October 2011, I wrote of South Africa’s inclusion in Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), that “unless we stand up for our own goals and values, our vote will become nothing more than an addition to theirs”. It is upsetting to see this playing out.