Inappropriate attendance – South Africa’s visit to Sri Lanka

June 2, 2011

Did you know that this past week South Africa has been in Sri Lanka? It has been attending an international conference, misleadingly titled “Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan experience”. The conference purports to celebrate Sri Lanka’s defeat of the LTTE  – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam  – the supposed terrorists. Sounds good, right? Wrong. You see, whilst Sri Lanka vehemently believes its victory to be a feather in the cap in its fight against terrorism; the United Nations however sees a conflict characterised by impunity and the disregard for international law. This begs the questions, should South Africa be in Sri Lanka, and what should be made of its attendance?

The recent United Nations Report on the Sri Lankan conflict documents, amongst other atrocities, the use human shields, forced disappearances, execution style killings and countless civilian casualties. Sri Lanka obviously denies these allegations. However, in light of these allegations a number of countries have boycotted the event on the ground that it is an attempt to clothe war crimes and crimes against humanity as a victory over terrorism. South Africa however, along with a host of other countries, is participating in this event, described by some as a blatant exercise of rudimentary propaganda.

But is South Africa’s attendance a bad thing? Yes and no. Its attendance, although verging on the inappropriate, should not necessarily be construed as an act of solidarity with the Sri Lankan government. Instead it is indicative of a much more subtle character flaw – South Africa is globally unaware – Its actions are devoid of any consideration for consequence and lack foresight.

With South Africa’s seat on the Security Council, its membership in BRICS and high level, albeit questionable, involvement in Libya and the Ivory Coast, South Africa has been catapulted into the international spotlight. With its revived international status South Africa, now more than ever, must represent itself as a responsible member of the international community. With a number of mishaps behind it, if South Africa is to be taken seriously, it must prove itself worthy.

So how is South Africa to salvage its waning credibility? For starters a concerted effort must be made to ensure that is fully aware of what is going on around it. Global awareness requires its actions on the world stage to translate into objective assessments and rational responses to international crises, both past and present. South Africa cannot allow itself to fall into the class of countries that, although vocal, are simply not taken seriously. It must adopt and maintain positions that are informed by human rights considerations and reflect the unconditional respect for the international legal order. If it decides to engage with the despots of this world outside these parameters, not only will South Africa lose face, its engagement will amount to empty and illegal promises. Even more importantly, South Africa must prove itself to be consistent and impartial – there is simply no room for quiet courtesy, presidential camaraderie and historical ties in South Africa’s foreign policy.

Perhaps South Africa’s attendance at this conference should therefore be given the benefit of the doubt; Perhaps South Africa did not get around to reading the United Nations report; Perhaps its attendance is an attempt to educate itself about the conflict, allowing South Africa to engage with an issue that is dominating the debates around accountability and impunity.

This optimism unfortunately rests on a number of assumptions. Can we assume South Africa has gone to Sri Lanka fully aware of its history, reports of human rights violations and the international community’s call for accountability? I certainly hope so. Can we also assume that South Africa appreciates that this event will punt a state of affairs intended to cast doubt on the allegations raised by the UN, civil society and other members of the international community?  Or should we assume that these concerns were simply not considered when South Africa accepted the invitation?

In what I hope are not empty assumptions, the ball now falls into South Africa’s court. Whether South Africa’s attendance warrants more criticism will depend on how South Africa responds to the international community’s calls for accountability going forward. Yes, the conference is Sri Lanka’s way of denying what happened, disguising it as an event to share its experience with world, but this will not detract from the allegations and evidence to the contrary. South Africa must commit itself to ensuring that the processes designed to ensure accountability are put in place, respected and allowed to take their course. This is not a big ask. South Africa’s positive pattern of voting in the Security Council and its professed commitment to ensuring accountability will surely not be swayed by its attendance at this controversial conference. South Africa surely you are better than that.

PS. As you mull over invitations, please think twice before ticking the “yes” box.

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