South Africa’s Human Rights Day commemorates one of the worst human rights violations of the apartheid era. It also celebrates our country’s post-democracy commitment to protecting and upholding human rights through a Constitution that is admired worldwide for its breadth and progressiveness.
On 21 March 1960 apartheid-era police killed 69 non-violent people protesting against laws requiring black people to carry “passes” – a form of internal passport – and injured more than 200 of the protestor’s fellows. On 10 December 1996, more than 36 years later, South Africa’s post-democracy Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, was finally passed into law – and South Africans made a public commitment to living in a country where nothing like the events of 21 March 1960 could ever take place again.
To have real, lasting effect a Constitution must have an integral effect on every action a government, and its people, take. Sadly, we do not always meet the Constitutional goals we have set ourselves, at home or abroad.
South Africa’s Constitution guarantees rights to life, equality, human dignity, and the freedom and security of the person, yet, since 2015 we have been selling arms to the United Arab Emirates and to Saudi Arabia, two nations that are directly involved in the war that has ravaged Yemen since late 2014. This bloodshed, in which human rights atrocities have been committed by both sides, has led to what the United Nations terms the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 24-million people, 80% of Yemen’s population, require humanitarian assistance. Of these, 12-million are children.
Also, instead of standing by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights, which underlines the right to life, South Africa abstained from voting, in 2018, on a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for extending the mandate of an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen.
If we are to live up to the tenets of our Constitution we should not be selling arms to any country or entity through which there is a chance that these weapons could be used in human rights abuses.
The world is beset by human rights atrocities. It is crying out for human rights champions. Genocide is one of the most egregious human rights violations imaginable, there are genocides taking place in Ethiopia, China, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria (Boko Haram), Somalia (Al-Shabaab) and in other countries and regions across the world.
South Africa does not always strongly condemn human rights abuses, even when they are genocidal.
This Human Rights Day lets us renew our resolve to live by our Constitution. Let us commit to being human rights champions. Let us be the voice for those who are suffering from human rights across the world. Let us aid, not abet.