In its first major action since being elected to the United Nations Security Council, on January 12th  South Africa voted with Russia and China against a draft Security Council (SC) resolution that censured Burmai over its continued human rights abuses and called for democratic reform. (Among other issues, see the draft’s full text). Obviously, since both China and Russia wield vetoes, South Africa’s vote was technically moot, but this action bodes ill for both our international reputation and for a clear-headed pro-democratic foreign policy.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Burma had a fairly democratic governance system until Ne Win led a military coup d’etat, became dictator and introduced a disastrous set of policies called the “Burmese Way to Socialism". Pro-democratic protests and unrest sporadically erupted from the 1970s onwards (particularly after U Thant’s funeral in 1974), culminating in the 8888 Uprising in 1988 which was brutally suppressed by the military after a second coup. Quite possibly due to pressures created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1990 free and fair legislative elections were held which the National League of Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, taking 392 out of 492 seats (369 more than its closest competitor – full results here). Sadly, the military refused to accept the outcome of the election, placed the NLD’s leader – the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi – under house arrest and continued both with its irrational economic policies that have impoverished the country and with serious human rights abuses.
The resolution and the vote
As noted above, the draft resolution censured Burma’s junta for continued human rights abuses, called on the military to cease its attacks on ethnic minorities (including widespread rape and sexual violence), and urged the government to initiate political dialogue with the NLD.
Of the 15 members of the SC, 3 voted against (SA, Russia & China), 3 abstained (Congo-Brazzaville, Indonesia & Qatar) whilst the remaining 9 (Belgium, Ghana, Italy, Panama, Peru, Slovakia, UK, US and France) voted for. Shockingly, South Africa is the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution (Indonesia, who abstained, is also a democracy). While Russia and China’s no votes were expected (they fear setting precedents that could be used against their own regimes or against their authoritarian allies), South Africa’s vote was utterly baffling. According to the South Africa’s representative, Dumisani Kumalo, government is extremely concerned about the situation in Burma but had three reasons for its position: adopting the resolution (1) would compromise the work of the Secretary General’s envoy to Burma, (2) dealt with issues best left to the Human Rights Council (HRC) and (3) did not fit the mandate given to the SC by the UN Charter.
It seems clear to me all three arguments South Africa offered to justify its position are bunk or, at the very least, reasons for abstaining, not for opposing.
The first argument is, in effect, a defense of “quiet diplomacy" – something there is good reason to believe doesn’t work. It’s a basic principle of the theory of games as applied to negotiations that mere talking, by itself, rarely produces desirable outcomes if the real world incentives of the parties involved are not changed somehow. Dictatorial governments very rarely (or never) give up power voluntarily; the idea, therefore, that the UN Secretary General (or his envoy) can talk “sense into" the junta and convince them to open negotiations with the NLD is naïve at best.
The second argument, though perfectly correct in a narrowly legalistic sense, fails on two counts: firstly, the HRC has almost no power whatsoever (so it’s a talking shop, nothing more) and, secondly, its structure is inherently flawed. Though the HRC is something of an improvement over its immediate predecessor, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a large number of countries on the council have poor human rights records themselves, including China, Pakistan, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others. (See the full list). Thankfully, liberal democracies have a slight majority (~54%), but non-democracies, and countries with a strong agenda to discourage the protection human rights (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.), nonetheless have an important say on the Council, especially with the decline of America’s soft power. In short, referring a case like this to the HRC is the international equivalent of “killing legislation in committee".
The third argument is arguably the most powerful – there is certainly something to this position – but I still think it fails to justify SA’s vote. Firstly, both the UK and the US made strong arguments that Burma’s domestic problems have important regional security consequences. Narcotics and human trafficking, millions of refugees, the radicalization of minority groups (leading to the adoption of terror tactics), and the political instability of Burma are serious regional, and perhaps even global, security concerns. Secondly, from the mid-1990s there has been a growing consensus that the world’s nations have a collective responsibility towards oppressed peoples. As Kofi Annan put it eloquently in his final speech in office:
[Collective responsibility] also includes our shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – a responsibility solemnly accepted by all nations at last year's UN summit. That means that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed.The idea that national sovereignty – adopted as a governing principle of international relations for purely pragmatic reasons at the Treaty of Westphalia – is some sort of grand, unbreakable moral principle is patently absurd. South Africa should not pretend governments have the right to slaughter their own population if they feel like it. Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that the ANC, who benefited from South Africa’s isolation over the purely sovereign issue of Apartheid, would adopt a reactionary position with respect to the right to freedom of other peoples. Moreover, even ignoring the above considerations, the narrowly legalistic interpretation that the SC can only do what the Charter says it can is itself incoherent. There is an important sense in which there just is no such thing as international law (for states, there manifestly is international law for individuals) – consequently, the SC, not the Charter, is sovereign. If this is right, then there is no reason whatsoever for South Africa not to support resolutions like these – unless, of course, our foreign policy is to be dictated by old-style Resistance loyalties or if the content of the resolution is being objected to.
i. Burma officially changed its name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, but since the regime that changed the name is illegitimate, many nations don’t recognize the emendation. (Much like Mabutu Sese Seko’s attempt to rename the DRC “Zaire" was widely unrecognized). See Explanation of the names of Burma/Myanmar for further information.