Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Human Rights Day Honours Non-discrimination

Saaleha Bamjee-Mayet

TSHWANE, Dec 10 2009 (IPS) - While waiting in one of those interminable queues at a South African state hospital, Jullian Nwadu was asked when she was going back to Zimbabwe. “In December,” she answered, welcoming what seemed like a stranger’s attempt at making friendly conversation. “When you go, you mustn’t come back.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay and minister of justice and constitutional development, Jeff Radebe. Credit: Saaleha Bamjee-Mayet/IPS

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay and minister of justice and constitutional development, Jeff Radebe. Credit: Saaleha Bamjee-Mayet/IPS

The sudden acid in the stranger’s tone, and the concurring mutterings of the people waiting around her, pushed her into silence. Nwadu, 51-years-old has been working as a domestic in Johannesburg for four years.

“What could I say? Some like us, some don’t like us,” she said. It is a common, and now almost cliché thread, that runs through these recurring stories. “They say we’re taking their jobs.”

Malawian, Victor Capanuca’s, observations are the same. The 25-year-old wasn’t directly affected by the xenophobic violence that erupted in South Africa late last year but he does say it is something he can feel is still very much on people’s minds.

“It’s simmering, their feeling. As long as foreigners are here, they are scared,” Capanuca said. Neither Nwadu nor Capanuca knew that December 10th marked International Human Rights day.

Celebrating the 61st anniversary of adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nation’s General Assembly, the message put out this December 10th was for all to”Embrace Diversity, End Discrimination”.

“The fight against discrimination is a struggle that lies at the very heart of human rights advocacy,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

Speaking at the Human Rights day celebrations at Freedom Park, Tshwane, Pillay said that new forms of xenophobia are on the rise.

“These are against refugees and migrants. Attacks against non-nationals in South Africa and elsewhere are gravely alarming. In some countries the bigotry that stigmatizes, vilifies and excludes those who are perceived as outsiders is, at times, used for sinister political agenda,” she said.

Instead of celebrating International Human Rights day in New York or Geneva, Pillay and her office decided that celebrating it in South Africa would honour Africa.

“While I’m in South Africa, I want to urge the South African government to ratify the United Nations convention on the protection of migrants and their families and to pass appropriate legislation to implement it,” she said. “With regard to the immediate violence, I suggest they must re-investigate and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Minister of justice and constitutional development Jeff Radebe acknowledged that the issue of the xenophobic attacks was a matter of shame for South Africans to be involved in “such nefarious activities”.

“We have made available dedicated prosecutors and dedicated courts. We can waste no time ensuring they [the perpetrators] are prosecuted and convicted of crimes committed against foreign nationals,” the justice minister said.

The chair of the South African Human Rights Commission, advocate Lawrence Mushwana said that it was necessary to take these steps together with government to ensure that xenophobic attacks, especially like that of the flare up in 2008, does not recur.

“It is a challenge for all of us to educate our own people. We need to maintain this social cohesion. We are all living together,” Mushwana said. Pillay said that they are countering bigotry by raising awareness among the public and by producing a number of human rights treaties that give effect to anti-discrimination and equality provisions.

“These treaties create a protective web of obligations that states must fulfill. They restore the dignity previously denied to millions of women, men and children. The outcomes of the Durban world conference against racism and its review process are veritable roadmaps along which advances in the struggle against discrimination can be fostered and monitored.”

Born and raised in Durban, Pillay was pleased to announce her office’s plan to support the work of the South African Human Rights Commission through a ‘four-pronged’ project aimed at helping to implement the process blueprint outlined at the Durban conference against racism.

The project will begin early next year and Pillay said it would work towards; “strengthening the capacity of the commission and its legal services programmes, shore up its ability to counter racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as bolster its efforts to protect the rights of detainees.”

“Progress has been remarkable, but we should not pause. Discrimination does not go away by itself. It must be challenged at every turn,” Pillay said. She called on all to: “take the challenge to your communities, to your schools, to your workplace. Do so now”.

During her time in South Africa, the High Commissioner presided over a panel of high-level judges, including Justice Pius Langa and Justice Arthur Chaskalson, at the first World Human Rights Moot Court competition, hosted by the University of Pretoria.

Two university teams from each of the five U.N. regions were pitted against each other using a hypothetical scenario that dealt with issues around discrimination, tolerance and the responsibility of the State to protect human rights.

Using fictional states called Livokia and Gallopia, the counsels had to put forward their arguments on whether Livokia was responsible for human rights violations and if Livokia should or shouldn’t allow deported Gallopians to return to Livokia and the contested independent state of Algora, as well as compensating them for looted property. This came after clashes between the Livokian majority in Algora and the native Gallopians.

While sounding whimsical, this wasn’t just a theoretical exercise according to Pillay. “These are issues related to ongoing matters, around state sovereignty and who we hold accountable,” Pillay said. “These students have done very well. They’ve put forward strong arguments, using real world examples and precedents. I would love to see them come over to international courts,” she said.

Pillay mused that she wished she had had such opportunities during her own studies. “We didn’t even know what international law was. When I left my practice to go overseas and study it, other lawyers wanted to know why and if after having completed it, I could charge higher fees.”

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