Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly credited Nelson Mandela's government with scrapping the country's nuclear weapons program. Former South African President F.W. de Klerk ordered the destruction of his country's atomic arms program.
South Africa's U.N. Votes Disappoint Some

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- Nelson Mandela's South Africa projected an image of a virtuous nation, reconciling with a brutal white minority government and serving as an enduring symbol of resistance to political oppression.

But South Africa's brief debut this year on the U.N. Security Council has tattered its reputation. It has prompted human rights activists to condemn South African President Thabo Mbeki for abandoning the human rights principles that defined the anti-apartheid movement and for routinely siding with some of the world's worst human rights abusers.

In just over three months, South Africa has used its position on the 15-nation council to try to block discussion of human rights abuses in Burma and Zimbabwe. It initially backed Iran's efforts to evade sanctions for defying U.N. demands to subject its nuclear program to greater scrutiny. And it reacted coolly to Kosovo's bid for independence, lending its backing to a Russian effort to deny Kosovo's president the right to address the U.N. Security Council in its formal chambers.

"It's a sad perversion of the anti-apartheid struggle," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Mandela understood that the anti-apartheid struggle was a human rights movement and clearly stood with the human rights victims of the world."

South Africa's U.N. ambassador, Dumisani Kumalo, said his government remains faithful to the values of the anti-apartheid movement, which offered amnesty to the country's former white rulers in exchange for publicly describing their roles in perpetuating a system of racial discrimination. He said South Africa has now embraced a pragmatic foreign policy that urges such countries as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe to resolve their disputes through negotiations.

"We're not into 'who is to blame,' " Kumalo said. "We believe in resolving problems. . . . We resolved our differences between black and white people in South Africa." South Africa, he added, stands ready to help others do the same.

Kumalo said his government is seeking to counter "an imbalance of global power" in the U.N. Security Council, where he said the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China use their authority to attack enemies and to shield friends. The council should stick to resolving international conflicts and not abuse its role by bullying small countries or expanding its authority into areas beyond its jurisdiction, including human rights, he said. Kumalo said that his government's hesitation to embrace Kosovo's independence bid reflects South Africa's concern that the 15-nation council is straying from its mission.

South Africa's approach has bolstered its standing among Third World blocs -- including the influential Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement -- that have long bridled over the power of the council's five powers. It has strengthened its case within Africa for a permanent Security Council seat if the 15-nation council is ever expanded.

But it has also set Pretoria on a collision course with the United States and its closest European allies, undercutting their efforts to use the United Nations to constrain Iran's nuclear program and highlight human rights abuses.

South Africa posed a rare challenge to the council's five powers by pressing them to abandon an agreement to impose a ban on Iranian arms sales and an asset freeze on Iran's top military commanders. The South African initiative failed, and Pretoria ultimately voted in favor of the sanctions.

Still, South Africa's stance struck a chord among Third World countries and succeeded in "making the point they are a force to be reckoned with and have to be dealt into negotiations," said Colin Keating, a former New Zealand ambassador who oversees the publication of a newsletter called the Security Council Report.

South Africa's more assertive approach has alienated some of its traditional allies in the human rights community by aligning it with brutal regimes, earning praise from countries accused of committing large-scale atrocities. South Africa "is a great nation; it's a role model for us" said Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad.

He said that South Africa's efforts to settle a dispute between Khartoum and numerous Darfurian rebel factions are likely to do more to achieve peace than threats of Western sanctions or scolding from human rights advocates.

South Africa is unapologetic about its willingness to stand up for friends such as Zimbabwe, which has launched a bloody crackdown on opposition leaders. "We do not apologize for having very strong, long relationship with Zimbabwe," Kumalo said. "There are a lot of people in Zimbabwe who died for me to stand up here as ambassador."

Kumalo said his government is sympathetic to the plight of victims of human rights abuses in such countries as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma. But he said the appropriate forum for those concerns is the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, not the U.N. Security Council. Last week, South Africa also voted on a measure to end scrutiny of human rights abuses inside Iran and Uzbekistan. The only country it has cited as deserving of international scrutiny is Israel.

Burmese human rights advocates say that while South Africa has provided political cover for Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, it has betrayed its former supporters in Burma's pro-democracy movement.

In 1960, Burma's then-elected government joined other U.N. members from the Third World in calling for a Security Council debate over the apartheid government's role in the April 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which led to the killing of 69 anti-apartheid protesters in the South African township. South Africa's then-U.N. ambassador, Brand Fourie, argued that the council had no right to debate such "purely local disturbances."

But in its first Security Council vote this year, South Africa joined Russia and China in voting against a U.S.-backed initiative to discuss the Burmese regime's oppression of pro-democracy followers of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past 17 years.

"It's ironic," said Jared Genser, a Washington lawyer and Burma activist, that the argument marshaled now by South Africa to block debate on Burma was "virtually identical" to that used by the apartheid regime to challenge the Security Council's criticism of the treatment of anti-apartheid protesters.

"I am deeply disappointed by our vote. It is a betrayal of our own noble past," South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said after the vote. "Many in the international community can hardly believe it," he said. "The tyrannical military regime is gloating, and we sided with them."

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