South African foreign policy

South African foreign policy

by Zeenat Adam

South Africa’s silence regarding human rights atrocities perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is conspicuous, as demonstrated in September, when it abstained from voting 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. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCOargues that such abstentions on human rights issues (there have been others) are ‘in line with government’s policy in the United Nations to abstain on country-specific situations outside the African continent in order not to align South Africa with any particular geopolitical bloc, and to ensure that we retain our ability to adopt independent policy positions in multilateral forums.’ 

In the Yemeni case, it is plausible that South Africa is reluctant to risk losing the $10 billion in investments pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to President Cyril Ramaphosa during his visits to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in July. Questions have already been raised about the political, diplomatic and reputational cost of these investments to South Africa. Despite these two states’ notorious human rights records, arms exports from South Africa to both countries have grown since the war began in Yemen, rendering Pretoria possibly complicit in war crimes committed since 2015. Both countries remain the most prolific purchasers of South African weapons.

South Africa’s approach of abstaining from voting on human rights issues in international fora renders it ineffectual and raises the question of why it wants to serve on the UNHRC and the UN Security Council – where it will begin its third two-year non-permanent term in 2019, if it is reluctant to take positions on matters of global importance. The fence-sitting deviates from South Africa’s approach during the Mandela era when it stood as a firm human rights defender on the international stage. In recent years, South African foreign policy seems to have drastically shifted from a human rights foundation to a drive for economic development through foreign investment. Using a mask of economic diplomacy, South Africa thus relinquishes its proclaimed core value of human rights.

For more than three years, the war in poverty-stricken Yemen continued, sparked by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of Yemen’s largest city and then-capital, Sana'a, in September 2014, and their move southwards towards Aden. By March 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the USA launched a military campaign to defeat the Houthis, who have since been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led campaign exacerbated the humanitarian impact of the war through intense aerial bombardments that caused mass civilian casualties; controlling ports of entry in a way that hindered the delivery of food and basic necessities; and creating the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.

The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen released a report in August, in which it stated that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe that the parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law’. The report covers the period from September 2014 to June 2018, and found that individuals in the Yemeni government and the coalition – including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and in the de facto authorities (the Houthi) have committed acts that may amount to international crimes. Coalition air strikes, the report asserts, may have been disproportionate and caused the most direct civilian casualties. The chairperson of the panel, Kamel Jendoubi, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia interfered with the work of the panel, despite its attempts to maintain neutrality.    

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Saudi Arabia to end airstrikes in Yemen, and to ensure that the perpetrators of attacks on children are brought to justice, thus adding to the mounting pressure on the coalition. The Panel of Experts’ report highlighted the use of children by all parties as child soldiers. In addition, it provided detailed reports of the use of torture in detention, sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) reported that outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and diphtheria and an upsurge in fighting have worsened the dire humanitarian situation, where more than three million people have been displaced since the war began. Over 20 million people need humanitarian assistance. MSF adds that indiscriminate bombings and chronic shortages of supplies and staff have led to the closure of more than half of Yemen’s health facilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes may be responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths.  Human Rights Watch reported that ‘the armed conflict has taken a terrible toll on the civilian population. The coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes hitting civilian objects that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war, with munitions that the US, United Kingdom, and others still supply.’ In September, UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva failed because the Houthi delegation did not attend, citing obstruction in its attempts to travel by the national delegation.

The ‘others’ that HRW refers to includes South Africa. According to annual reports of the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), South Africa supplied arms, ammunition and armoured vehicles, as well as surveillance and military technology to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2016 and 2017, amounting to more than three billion Rands, while the two states were deeply embroiled in Yemen, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Evidence of South African military equipment being used in Yemen by the coalition emerged as early as 2015 when footage was broadcast by Al Masirah news channel of a Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle that had been downed. The images indicate a plate worded: ‘Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd’.

In August 2018, an attack on a fish market in the port city of Hodeida resulted in the death of at least fifty-five civilians. Indications are that the munition fragments found at the scene resemble 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by the South African arms manufacturer Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM). 

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which documents the global flow of weapons, noted that arms sales to the Middle East increased exponentially between 2013 and 2017, with Saudi Arabia as the largest purchaser in the region, followed closely by the world’s fourth largest arms importer, the UAE. South Africa ranks among UAE’s top arms suppliers for the period 2007-2017.

Despite glaring human rights’ concerns, arms supplying countries like South Africa continue to export weapons to states in the Saudi-led coalition. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act mandates the NCACC to ‘avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and to ‘avoid transfers of conventional weapons that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilising military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability’.

Established in 1995, the NCACC is a cabinet committee, uniquely protected, and the appointment of whose members is the sole responsibility of the president. Jeff Radebe, currently the Minister of Energy, has served as the committee’s chairperson since 2009. The committee is supported by an inspectorate that looks after matters of compliance, and a Scrutiny Committee that considers applications submitted by companies seeking to sell arms. The NCACC is required to consult certain government departments regularly, including DIRCO, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the State Security Agency (SSA).Cabinet established an NCACC organisational structure that comprises ‘four accountable levels of responsibility:

  • an initial permit application technical processing level;
  • a multi-departmental review and recommendation process on permit application;
  • a scrutiny and recommendation process by Directors-General; and
  • a control, policy and decision-making authority, which is a Cabinet-approved Committee of Ministers, the NCACC.’

The structure was meant to ensure that authority over South African arms sales would be vested in a senior ministerial caucus rather than in civil servants. The NCACC should meet monthly to consider arms transfer applications. However, the committee seems to have been less serious in its responsibilities in the recent few years, thus allowing loopholes for corruption and unchecked weapons’ transfers. If it has doubt over sales to a particular purchaser, the committee should suspend applications until assessments are conducted by the relevant departments. In such cases, DIRCO and the SSA would monitor the country in question and submit recommendations to the committee, which will then decide to approve or deny the application. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence provides oversight to the committee and is authorised to question its decisions. Radebe and the minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, appeared before the Joint Standing Committee, but their responses to questions on arms’ sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners appeared deflective. Empty promises were made that investigations would be undertaken to determine the reasons for sales to countries where human rights atrocities are perpetrated. The two ministers feigned ignorance of the situation in Yemen and overlooked the culpability of the Saudi coalition.

The $10 billion investment pledge by Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also play a role in the arms market. Though the investment is expected to focus mainly on the energy sector, indications are that South Africa’s failing defence industry may get a boost off the back of the energy deals. The link between energy and arms raises a concern about the chairperson of the committee. Because the chairperson is required to be neutral in the deliberation of the committee, the position is usually filled by a minister whose portfolio does not conflict with NCACC decisions. In this case, it is debatable whether the minister of energy’s heading the committee might be regarded as neutral.

Apart from domestic legislation on weapons’ sales, South Africa is also a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, which it ratified in 2014. The conditions of the treaty stipulate, among other things, that the state parties must assess the potential that conventional arms could be used to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. South Africa continues to authorise the sale of conventional weapons that have been used by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, despite widely-known allegations, as documented by the UN, of serious violations of international law by members of their coalition in Yemen. Significantly,  Saudi officials themselves claim to have conducted more than 145 000 missions over Yemen in the past three years. One Saudi general estimated that more than 100 000 of those missions were of a combative nature, and that the military had conducted as many as 300 such operations in a single day. 

In addition to the sale of small arms, assault rifles, heavy artillery guns and armoured vehicles, South Africa has supplied the UAE and Saudi Arabia with mortar bombs, armoured personnel carriers, artillery, ammunition, electronic attack systems, software, and a range of other controlled products.

When the Barack Obama administration in the USA declined Saudi Arabia’s request for the supply of Predator drones in 2013, the kingdom turned to South Africa’s Denel Dynamics to assist Riyadh in the development of its own armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme. Denel adapted the Seeker-400 with a range of 250 kilometres and an endurance of 16 hours to carry the Makopa air-to-ground missile and the Impi laser-guided missile, which has a multipurpose warhead suited for assassination missions. By May 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its own combat drone, Saqr 1, which resembled Denel’s design.

In June 2016, South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, travelled to Saudi Arabia to inaugurate a Saudi Military Industries Corporation facility in Al-Kharjnear Riyadh. He did so together with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is seen as the architect of the war in Yemen. The 240 million dollar projectiles’ factory was built in collaboration with South Africa’s Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, and is expected to produce a minimum of 300 artillery shells or 600 mortar projectiles per day, as well as aircraft bombs ranging from 500lb-2000lb. 

Earlier this year, notorious South African arms dealer, Ivor Ichikowitz, announced that his Paramount Group was in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants. Since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, South African companies may ultimately assist these countries to establish munitions factories that are capable of manufacturing cluster munitions. Both Gulf states have used cluster munitions in the war in Yemen. In transferring its technology, South Africa protects itself from a future legal quagmire that may arise domestically in terms of the NCACC, or, internationally, since it is signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty. It may thus absolve itself of responsibility in case of human rights atrocities committed with the weapons, since they would be manufactured in a country where neither law applies.

MBS is touted as the face of a changing Saudi Arabia and the successor to his father Salman, the king. The young crown prince has consolidated power in himself by violently rooting out dissidents and family members and seizing control of key ministries, including defence. With Saudi Arabia being among the top three global arms purchasers, the regime has plans to grow its arms industry and manufacturing capabilities by 2030 through a new state-owned company, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI).

In September, SAMI’s CEO, Andreas Schwer, attended the 10th Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) exhibition in Pretoria, where he announced SAMI’s intention to enter into joint ventures with South African entities, and potentially explore an equity investment into South Africa’s cash-strapped state-owned enterprise, Denel. The South Africans seem interested in the proposal, especially suggestions of an economic bailout for Denel. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, confirmed the Saudi overtures on 11 October, and indicated that she did ‘not know what the outcome of those negotiations will be when it gets to the NCACC’. She added that the committee would consider the merits of the proposed deal, including human rights implications. 

The reference to human rights came amidst growing media pressure for South Africa to reconsider its arms sales to the Middle East. She too appeared ill-informed about the situation in Yemen. Her department had only issued two statements on the situation in Yemen over the past three years. On both occasions, the statements appeared to justify Saudi actions as a response to Iranian-backed Houthi militia attacks. In the October press conference, she disclosed that Saudi Arabia had approached Pretoria to intervene with Iran. She grappled with questions about South Africa’s commitment to human rights in the light of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia. ‘We do not sell arms to any country that we have been advised by our officials within the security and international relations environment is violating human rights... The reason we established the NCACC in 1994 is that our foreign policy and our own understanding of ourselves is based on human rights. Our common religion is human rights. We have suffered too long to ever veer away from that religious belief,’ she said.

The UAE too has quietly built a formidable military, using its oil wealth to stealthily purchase arms, making it the fourth largest buyer of arms globally. The UAE has also contracted private military security companies linked to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince to develop a new model army with a strictly no Muslim hiring policy because ‘Muslim soldiers could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims’. This force consists of foreign troops trained by western veterans and includes several South African mercenaries, in violation of South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.

Between 2006 and 2016, Denel supplied an estimated 192 Nyala (rebranded as Agrab in the UAE) armoured mortar carriers to the UAE through an Emirati company, International Golden Group. Another significant deal was the sale of Al-Tariq (known as Umbani in South Africa) guided bombs for mirage jets, produced by Tawazun Dynamics, a joint venture with Denel. This deal, worth 500 million dollars, ensured the delivery of at least 1 600 bombs to the UAE by end 2016. After the Emiratis failed to procure Predator drones from the USA, they acquired Chinese-manufactured drones equipped with South African targeting equipment. 

At the 2017 Dubai Airshow, a UAE spokesperson, Staff Pilot Air-Vice Marshal Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, announced that the UAE had ordered Seeker surveillance drones from Denel Dynamics to the value of AED 48.1 million (USD 13 million), to be delivered in 2018. The UAE has a reputation for redirecting and re-exporting weapons to other countries (including African states), in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. A recent investigation by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia alleges that the UAE violated the arms embargo imposed on Somalia by transferring military equipment to the Horn of Africa despite international resolutions against the shipments. If South Africa is aware of any such onward sales or transfers of weapons it manufactured, this would violate domestic and international laws, and be in breach of the end user agreement between the UAE and South Africa that assures that any arms purchased would only be utilised by the UAE.

As proxy wars play out between Iran and the Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen at the expense of innocent civilians, there is an increasing indication of an arms race under way in the Middle East. Widespread debate about arms transfers from the UK, Europe and the USA has erupted in those countries because of human rights atrocities committed in the Middle East. Germany and Norway have halted the sale of arms to countries involved in the Yemen war, citing concerns over the humanitarian crisis. To date, the NCACC has not questioned the sale of South African weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite glaring allegations of human rights atrocities.

There are other examples too of South Africa not being strict in its responsibility regarding arms sales. In 2010, the NCACC authorised weapons sales to Libya. In responding to opposition questions about the deal, NCACC chair, Jeff Radebe, defended the government position, arguing that at the time the deal was concluded, there had been no evidence that there would be any political unrest in that country. Similar responses were proffered by Radebe when questioned about more recent dubious deals.

South Africa recently applied to the United Nations for authorisation to sell 1,5 billion Rands worth of Umkhonto surface-to-air missiles to Iran, a country that is currently embroiled in the conflict in Syria, and allegedly supportive of the Houthi in Yemen. Such a move would also add to the growing militarisation of a region already fraught with intense conflicts. 

As Saudi atrocities in Yemen and its repression of its own citizens come to light, there appears to be a shift amongst its traditional allies. Following the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist and critic of the regime, Jamal Khashoggi, earlier this month, pressure has mounted on the US president, Donald Trump to punish Saudi Arabia. While he has vehemently defended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amounting to $110 billion, the US Senate Foreign Relations chairperson announced that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be passed by Congress. The UK has also threatened serious consequences should Saudi Arabia be found culpable in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Saudi Arabia has begun a diplomatic drive to rescue its reputation and will seek new arms suppliers should the US and UK avenues be blocked. South Africa needs to tread with caution in responding to the temptation to fill such a void, and must ponder carefully its role in further destabilising a region that is already fraught with conflict.

In pursuing its national interests and in advancing economic diplomacy, the South African government believes that promising profitable investments will address the poverty and unemployment scourge. For the South African government, the deals with Saudi Arabia fit well into Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign – a slogan inspired by the lyrics of a popular song by the late Hugh Masekela, which paints a picture of societal change. However, the cost to South Africa may be immeasurable. 

The right to life and human dignity that are emphasised in the South African constitution cannot be forsaken in favour of financial gain, while blood continues to be spilled. Continued engagement with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector may render South Africa culpable in the deaths of innocent people, the implications of which are far-reaching beyond the Gulf region and could have a direct impact on international stability. Pretoria must carefully consider the long-term costs and consequences of short-term deals. As South Africa prepares to take its seat at the UNSC in January 2019, it must ensure that such offers do not compromise its neutrality, and that it renews its reputation as a fair, independent defender of human rights.

* Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa

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