Hudson Institute

South Africa and the African National Congress’s History of Supporting Abusive Regimes

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attends the AU Summit on June 14, 2015, in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Moeletsi Mabe/The Times/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

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South Africa and the African National Congress’s History of Supporting Abusive Regimes

The South African government has been an aggressive critic of Israel for decades and is now leading the international condemnation of the Israeli response to Hamas’s October 7 terror attack. South Africa filed a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel for alleged crimes, including genocide, against the Palestinians.1 Pretoria’s press release announcing the case declared that “South Africa is under a treaty obligation to prevent genocide from occurring.”2 The party that has ruled South Africa since the end of Apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), applauded the filing and said that it “signifies [South Africa’s] unwavering commitment to justice, human rights, and the principles enshrined in international law.”3

But a review of South Africa’s foreign policy, namely its voting record at the United Nations, demonstrates that for decades Pretoria and the ANC have remained silent on some of the world’s worst abuses and have supported regimes with appalling human rights records. Pretoria’s claim that its commitment to human rights forces it to pursue Israel is undercut by South Africa’s long record of selective concern on human rights issues not involving Israel and should not be taken seriously by the international community.

South Africa and the ANC’s Silence at the United Nations

From 1994 through October 2023, South Africa was eligible to vote on 111 contested draft resolutions condemning countries other than Israel for human rights violations in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR).4 Given this opportunity to demonstrate its fidelity to human rights, Pretoria responded largely with inaction when Israel was not the subject. South Africa abstained on 75 of the 111 motions (68 percent), voted against 17 motions (15 percent), and voted in favor of 19 motions (17 percent).5 It did not sponsor any of these contested draft resolutions.6 During the same period, South Africa voted to condemn Israel in all 99 contested draft resolutions for which it was eligible to vote,7 and even sponsored 41 of these resolutions.8

Many of South Africa’s abstentions and “no” votes on non-Israel-related draft resolutions are inconsistent with Pretoria’s claim that it is obliged to act on human rights crises. These include the Syrian conflict, during which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is estimated to have killed over 200,000 civilians, including around 15,000 through torture.9 The conflict also displaced an estimated 14 million Syrians. South Africa abstained on all 22 of the contested resolutions on Syria at the UNHRC for which it was eligible to vote, including resolutions condemning the use of chemical weapons after the Assad regime used sarin gas to kill more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb.11 In fact, South Africa voted in favor of 31 resolutions condemning Israeli actions in the Golan Heights, but none condemning the Assad regime’s crimes in Syria.

Similarly, of 12 resolutions on Iran’s human rights situation on which it could vote, South Africa abstained on 11 and voted against one.12 Among those resolutions was A/HRC/RES/52/27, which the UNHRC adopted in April 2023 after Iran’s morality police beat a woman to death for improper veiling. This killing sparked monthslong protests in Iran, which the dictatorship brutally suppressed.13

South Africa repeated this pattern when voting on resolutions condemning North Korea. South Africa abstained on all eight motions for which it could have voted, including those that condemned “torture,” “public executions,” “the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor,” “all-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion,” “mistreatment of and discrimination against disabled children,” and the “violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women.”14 Another motion condemned “the trafficking of women for prostitution or forced marriage, ethnically motivated forced abortions and infanticide . . . including in police detention centres and labour training camps.”15 Yet another condemned “the systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations . . . that, in many instances, constitute crimes against humanity,” “violations of the right to life and acts of extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other grave forms of sexual violence and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds,” and “the widespread practice of collective punishment with harsh sentences imposed on innocent individuals.”16

Pretoria sometimes goes beyond abstention on some of the world’s worst injustices and provides diplomatic protection and support to abusive governments. Of the four opportunities it had at the UNCHR to condemn the Chinese government’s repression of its citizens’ liberties, including in Tibet and Xinjiang, South Africa voted for two “no decision” motions designed to defeat the associated condemnatory draft resolutions, abstained on another, and voted against a fourth.17 Similarly, Pretoria voted against all eight resolutions that it could on Cuba, which received a 12 of 100 score in Freedom House’s most recent Freedom in the World report.18

Even the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)’s abuses failed to draw South Africa’s condemnation at the UN. Between 2002 and 2004, South Africa was eligible to vote for three contested no decision motions protecting Zimbabwe in the UNCHR. Pretoria voted in favor of all three,19 one of which it had introduced.20 During that period, Zimbabwe’s government launched a wave of brutal farm invasions that displaced 800,000 people, decimated the country’s agricultural sector, and propelled Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.21 Using primarily youth militias, the ZANU-PF also intimidated, assaulted, kidnapped, and even killed opposition supporters in the run-up to the 2002 election.22 Later, in the name of “quiet diplomacy,” South African president and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki downplayed the crisis in Zimbabwe and shielded Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe from international pressure, including from the Southern African Development Community.23

Countries may vote for or against human rights resolutions at the United Nations for reasons that have little to do with the substantive issue. Nonetheless, the rate at which South Africa abstained on or even voted against draft resolutions condemning some of the worst abuses evidences a pattern of unconcern for human rights that is incongruent with Pretoria’s public statements about why it felt compelled to bring the case against Israel at the ICJ.

Furthermore, while other African countries abstained on many of the resolutions mentioned in this report, at least three nations—and in some cases as many as seven—supported the resolutions on Syria that South Africa unwaveringly abstained from. 24 Of the 11 Iran resolutions on which South Africa abstained, at least one African country supported nine.25 Between one and six African nations supported each of the resolutions condemning North Korea, yet South Africa abstained on all eight.26 In other words, Pretoria and the ANC are laggards among African nations in condemning some of the world’s worst human rights emergencies.

Defending Rights Abusers, Including Genocidaires

Pretoria has also demonstrated a selective concern for human rights in other ways. In 2015, it ignored its treaty obligations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by hosting then Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir despite an ICC arrest warrant for three counts of genocide, among other crimes.27 That genocide likely killed over 300,000 people and displaced over two million.28 Yet the ANC-dominated government ignored a South African court’s order to detain Bashir—an order later upheld by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal—thus drawing a rebuke from an ICC court in 2017.29 This month, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also received General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF).30 Daglo’s RSF formed from the notorious Janjaweed militias that perpetrated the genocide for which the ICC wanted Bashir. The RSF is currently committing what may prove to be a second genocide in the same region of Sudan.31

South Africa has also maintained friendly ties with Moscow despite the latter’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, during which Russia has perpetrated numerous war crimes.32 These crimes include the forced deportation of potentially hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children, which precipitated an ICC arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.33 Pretoria responded to the warrant by threatening (not for the first time) to withdraw from the Rome Statute, which founded the ICC.34 Though South Africa eventually backtracked on its threat,35 it held naval exercises with Russia and China in February 2022, and President Ramaphosa attended the July 2023 Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg.36

In addition, the ANC hosted a Hamas delegation in early December 2023, less than two months after the terrorist group launched the surprise attack on Israel that killed over 1,100 men, women, and children and included rapes, beheadings, and kidnappings. In fact, the ANC has a lasting relationship with Hamas and has hosted the group at least one time previously. In October 2015 President Jacob Zuma, then head of the ANC, met with Hamas cofounder Khaled Mashal.37

In sum, South Africa has either diplomatically supported or frequently refrained from condemning the abuses of the following regimes:

  • The Assad regime in Syria, which killed over 200,000 people and displaced millions more.
  • The Islamic regime in Iran, a theocratic dictatorship that oppresses its citizens and sponsors terrorism throughout the Middle East and beyond.
  • The Kim regime in North Korea, which holds between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners as of 2014, has abducted over 200,000 people to its territory, and has committed “crimes against humanity . . . pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state.”38
  • The Chinese Communist Party, which has interned from 800,000 to over two million Uyghurs, an ethnic and religious minority, in concentration camps.39
  • The Castro regime in Cuba, whose rule has been so violent and oppressive that by 1994 as many as 100,000 Cubans may have died fleeing the country.40 As of 1996, over a million had emigrated to the United States alone.41
  • Zimbabwe and the ZANU-PF, whose crimes include the Gukurahundi massacre, which killed around 20,000 people in the 1980s, and 2005’s Operation Murambatsvina, which displaced or destroyed the livelihoods of around 700,000 people.42
  • The Bashir regime in Sudan, which managed the genocide of over 300,000 people and the displacement of over two million. The ANC even defied South Africa’s own courts to protect Bashir.
  • The RSF in Sudan, which as the Janjaweed was the chief perpetrator of the Bashir-orchestrated genocide in Darfur and is now responsible for the current ethnic cleansing campaign there against non-Arabs.43
  • Russia and Vladimir Putin, who is wanted by the ICC and whose forces are currently committing war crimes in Ukraine.
  • Hamas, a terrorist organization whose founding document calls for the genocide of Jews and the eradication of Israel.44

Unworthy of the World’s Moral Regard

Pretoria and the ANC are likely using their status as a global voice of conscience—a vestige of the anti-Apartheid struggle—to earn credibility and international support for their ICJ case against Israel. Yet South Africa has declined to condemn some of the gravest human rights abuses of the modern era and has often proactively tried to shield some of the world’s most violent governments. This record of selective and often callous disregard for human rights should provoke global skepticism of any human rights position South Africa adopts, including on Israel.

APPENDIX: Methodology

Some of the research presented in this paper was originally compiled by the author when he was a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Regarding Condemnatory Resolutions

This report is concerned with contested, condemnatory resolutions. It does not include resolutions adopted unanimously or without a vote, which are frequent methods of adoption, or ostensibly condemnatory resolutions that are in fact so mild that, in the author’s judgment, they are on balance supportive of the country in question. It also does not include resolutions that are explicitly supportive of the subject country, or that target a group or situation within a given country (e.g., E/CN.4/RES/1999/43 “Abduction of Children from Northern Uganda”), rather than a national government or country.

Determining whether a resolution is on balance condemnatory is complicated by several realities. While resolutions at the UNHRC or UNCHR that scrutinize the human rights situation in a named country are implicitly condemnatory, some are so mild that states wishing to condemn the human rights situation in the focus country sometimes voted against the resolutions. One example is A/HRC/2/L.44, which offers only the mildest critique of the Sudanese government’s genocidal activities in Darfur, to the extent that Finland introduced amendments (A/HRC/2/L.48) to strengthen the language. Those amendments were rejected, and L.44 was adopted as decision 2/115, despite “no” votes from Canada and various European states that wanted stronger language.45 Another example is A/HRC/36/30, which both praises and mildly critiques the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This report usually included mildly condemnatory decisions and resolutions like these, even though it could be plausibly argued that they in some ways protect the targeted countries. The exceptions are when, in the author’s judgment, the resolution in question was on balance supportive or helpful to the targeted country.

Some resolutions name specific countries but are focused on promoting assistance to the country rather than condemning human rights violations there. Examples include A/HRC/RES/16/34 regarding Burundi and A/HRC/RES/6/35 regarding Darfur, and A/HRC/RES/10/33 regarding DRC (this type of resolution is also so benign that it is frequently adopted without a vote). The report does not include such resolutions because its focus is on contested, condemnatory resolutions.

Recurring resolutions regarding certain countries could also be part of a broader diplomatic struggle between blocs of countries, resulting in resolutions on the same country that could be condemnatory, supportive, or a mix of the two within the same resolution. Resolutions concerning Venezuela are a good example. Some are on balance critical, though mildly (e.g., A/HRC/RES/39/1), while others are on balance supportive of the Venezuelan government even if there are some oblique and mild criticisms within the resolutions. A/HRC/RES/42/4, for example, gently criticizes but also praises the Venezuelan government, and expresses concern about “unilateral coercive measures” targeting Venezuela. That is the same phrase used in numerous Venezuela-introduced resolutions decrying the imposition of sanctions, such as A/HRC/RES/34/13, A/HRC/RES/36/10, and A/HRC/RES/37/21. Furthermore, the resolution was introduced by Iran and Russia, and countries that usually would not vote for a condemnatory resolution of Venezuela, such as China, Eritrea, and South Africa, did support this one, demonstrating that they perceived it to be on balance favorable.

The report does not record as sponsorship when South Africa was part of a group on whose behalf a resolution was sponsored. Being the named sponsor versus being merely part of a group on whose behalf a resolution is sponsored denotes differing levels of commitment to the resolution in question. South Africa is also a member of multiple groups on whose behalf the same resolution could be sponsored simultaneously, and counting each such instance as sponsorship risks confusing the overall sponsorship count.

Regarding Anti-Israel Motions

This report errs on the side of being methodologically conservative, so if a resolution did not specifically attack Israel, the author usually did not include it. The report therefore does not count among the total anti-Israel resolutions some dealing with Palestinian issues, including many focused on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). That is even though UNRWA’s mere existence—and by extension the many resolutions supporting it—could be interpreted as being anti-Israel. The UNRWA is the only UN agency dedicated to a single refugee population, and it has a history of anti-Israeli bias. Some UNRWA-related resolutions were included, however, because they contained condemnatory language aimed specifically at Israel.

The report also does not include resolutions hostile to core Israeli interests, such as how to resolve the status of Jerusalem, unless there was language within the resolution specifically attacking Israel.

The report does include resolutions that do not specifically attack Israel but whose anti-Israel nature was unavoidably obvious, according to the author’s best judgment. One such instance was a recurring resolution entitled “The Right of the Palestinian People to Self-Determination.” Some of the resolutions within the series did not specifically condemn Israel, while others did (e.g., A/HRC/RES/13/6). Given that all these resolutions are implicit (and frequently explicit) rebukes of Israel, that they were usually introduced by countries that frequently introduced anti-Israel draft resolutions, and that pro-Israel countries (including Israel itself) voted against these measures when they were able, the report includes all of this series of resolutions among the anti-Israel resolutions.

The conservative methodology used means that there are significantly more resolutions that are implicitly aimed at Israel than are captured here. Furthermore, comparing condemnatory resolutions of non-Israel countries to those condemning Israel can be misleading because they are often not equivalent in vehemence. Few of the non-Israel resolutions included in the report are as condemnatory as any of the anti-Israel resolutions, limiting the usefulness of one-to-one comparisons.