18 July 2016
By Taliesin Cormach - QL SA
On Sunday South Africa's Human Rights Commission announced that it has written a stern letter to the country's International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, asking to meet her to discuss concerns over the country’s seemingly "waning" commitment to human rights.
The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says it is often approached in international circles by those concerned by South Africa's recent UN abstention on gay rights.
SAHRC chairperson Advocate Lourence Mushwana wrote in the letter:
"A few weeks ago, the Commission was approached by various civil society organisations over concerns regarding South Africa's voting patterns at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council.
"However, because we have not had an opportunity to share your views on these matters, we have not been able to respond in a manner that correctly reflects the thinking behind some of our voting patterns… or indeed our approach to some of the matters alluded to above."
He said previous attempts to engage with the minister on the matter had been unsuccessful and that the South African ANC led government had then gone on to abstain from a vote on a UN resolution against discrimination and violence on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.
In the letter sent to the minister on Friday, the SAHRC requests a meeting in order to discuss the matter as well as other concerns about South Africa's seemingly "waning" commitment to human rights in its foreign policy.
He requests a response from the minister before the end of the month so that a meeting can then be set up.
"The Commission avails itself to assist the South African government in any way possible, in order to ensure that its international relations policy reflects the highest ideals of our Constitution."
In 1996, SA became the first country to enshrine gay rights in its Constitution. The Constitutional Court has consistently ruled that any form of discrimination based on sexual identity, whether by the government or a private entity, is unconstitutional.
Consequently, SA has traditionally been viewed as the most progressive African country on gay issues. Until now.
Although ultimately, the UN Human Rights Council's resolution to appoint an independent watchdog on sexual orientation for the next three years was passed last month with 23 votes for, 18 against, and six abstentions – no African country voted in favour of it.
Before the official vote, South Africa's delegate, Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, stated that while SA believed no person should be discriminated against on any grounds, the resolution itself was too divisive, unnecessary, and an "arrogant approach".
It is still unclear what exactly made this resolution any more divisive than the previous resolutions South Africa pursued as the South African representative's explanation seem to be full of contradictions.
Over the past few months, activists have grown increasingly concerned that the South African government has backed down from speaking out for LGBTI rights on the international stage. They fear that continued abstentions and silence will strengthen the position of other African bloc countries, such as Uganda and Nigeria, who blatantly discriminate against gays.