Reinvigorating South Africa’s leadership role in the International Human Rights Treaty Monitoring System
26 January 2017
Remarks by Deputy Minister Landers on the occasion of the Seminar on South Africa and the international human rights Treaty Monitoring System on 26 January 2017, OR Tambo Building, Pretoria
I am honoured to address this important and timely seminar titled: “Reinvigorating South Africa’s leadership role in the International Human Rights Treaty Monitoring System: Possibilities for enhanced impact”. As you know, South Africa actively participates in both the AU and UN mechanisms, proving our commitment to the global human rights agenda.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation decided on the convening of this important seminar primarily for the following reasons:
• To provide a unique opportunity for Government to interact, in a less formal setting, with the South African experts to the Treaty System, with the aim of reflecting on the role played by South African nationals in the global human rights system and how this can contribute to the enhancing of the country’s international human rights image;
• To obtain insights into the working methods of these bodies and learn how the country can best improve on its reporting obligations to these important bodies, as well as deal with the cumulative backlog in this regard;
• To enhance professional relations between experts and government officials, in order to ensure that South Africa is better positioned within the human right rights framework, while bearing in mind the imperative need for the independence of our experts; and
• To imbibe on the vast knowledge and experience of our own experts gained over the years, through interaction with other Governments and their performance in terms of Treaty obligations. South Africa can learn from the invaluable experience and a reservoir of knowledge on best practices.
The UN system is predicated on three pillars namely, peace and security, development and human rights. The 1973 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (VDPA), enjoins the international community to treat all human rights with the same emphasis and on the same footing. It is for this reason that the Vienna Conference has been designated as a seminal phase in the development of international human rights standards. The UN human rights system is engulfed with tensions and contestations which have the tendency to polarize the equal significance of the two core Covenants, namely, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The different regions tend to emphasize one Covenant at the expense of the other.
For South Africa, commitment to the Vienna spirit of universality, indivisibility, inter-dependence and inter-relatedness of all human rights is paramount. In this vein, the democratic dispensation of 1994 ensured the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights through the Constitution of South Africa, adopted in 1996. Consequently, all the South African flagship initiatives within the international human rights system are predicated on this paradigm and narrative. These include the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights everywhere; the attainment of the MDGs, particularly the unfinished business thereof; Agenda 2030 and more fundamentally, the attainment of the Right to Development as a reality for everyone. We believe in the narrative that all human rights should be mainstreamed into development and development into human rights. The challenge with advocacy for promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights in an environment which is devoid of development, is in itself a contradiction in terms and an impediment towards the practical realisation of the Right to Development.
The South African Government believes in the active involvement and participation of civil society. The South African approach to norms and standards setting in the UN and AU is an inclusive and participatory process. In this regard, DIRCO convenes three stakeholder outreach sessions annually ahead of the session of the Human Rights Council sessions and UNGA Third Committee with (i) relevant National Departments, (ii) Chapter 9 Institutions, and (iii) Civil Society Organisations.
However, South Africa has, in recent times, come under criticism, both at home and internationally, for its performance on the international human rights stage. This Seminar provides an opportunity to reflect on our challenges and to chart a way forward in an effort to reverse the negative perceptions about our commitment to human rights.
Since our return to the Community of nations in 1995, we have done our best to live up to expectations in terms of our continental and global responsibilities. Owing to satisfactory gains in this regard, the SA cabinet adopted a Candidatures Policy for the deployment of experts within the Human Rights system. We pursue this goal prominently as witnessed by yourselves in this room.
In 2016 alone, South Africa succeeded in deploying three experts to the (i) Human Rights Committee (HRC), (ii) the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and (iii) the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), respectively. The latter deployment came within months of South Africa’s ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in January 2015. We are very proud of these achievements and we believe we can do more to have quality individuals serve and influence the AU and UN systems.
As we speak, the country is ready to submit its Initial Report to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on 12 April 2017. South Africa will also, in May 2017, present its Third Universal Periodic Review Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I sincerely trust that our national interdepartmental coordination mechanisms will be significantly improved in order to allow for such reports to be thoroughly consulted on all the national multi-stakeholder constituencies.
South Africa takes pride at the caliber of the independent experts that have served and are currently serving in the various human rights structures at the international level. We consider you to be South African ambassadors within these important structures and we salute your contribution to profiling our country on the human rights front. I am hopeful that this engagement fosters a mutually reinforcing relationship with you so that we can better impact the human rights system.
In closing, ladies and gentlemen, we see this important seminar as an ideal opportunity for Government officials to gain insight into the work of the various human rights treaty bodies. Beyond this seminar, it is within our power as Government, to be more impactful in the human rights system. It is, therefore, important for us to work collaboratively, through a focused, coordinated approach as we strive to protect, promote and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.
I am confident that this seminar will come with innovative proposals in terms of how we can impact, influence and provide leadership on the AU and UN human rights treaty monitoring system.
I thank you