Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

SA's human rights 'abuses'
The government has taken offence at the US state department's annual report on global human rights. According to the report, "deaths due to the use of excessive force by security forces and deaths in police custody were serious problems" in South Africa. SA is one of 196 countries in the report, and is by no means amongst the worst offenders, so perhaps government should ignore this one...

Firstly, let's look at reality in SA. We live in a very violent country. Let me be very clear that I am not inferring that this condones police brutality, what I rather mean to extrapolate is that not every criminal arrested in South Africa goes quietly, and violence during arrest, especially involving guns, is commonplace. Secondly, the report details the number of deaths in custody without providing antecedents. South African jails are an over-crowded mess of hardened criminals, many of whom die in internal gang fights, suicides or disease or illness. How many of that number is killed due to police brutality is not stated. Let's not forget that there are millions in jail in South Africa. 383 deaths may sound like a significant amount, but when looked at against a few million, its not as shocking. These kind of reports tend to talk up abuses to justify their own existence. Yes, there has also been violence during protests against service delivery, but one cannot state that this is always the police's fault. Instigation in socio-political riots is an incredibly difficult blame to assign. If police are forced by a thousand-strong mob to fire rubber bullets, dire consequences may occur.

One cannot deny that there are problems in our justice and security force system, but these are being worked on, and one can see the pressure that the security forces operate under in this country. With crime statistics such as we have, the human rights infringements made on criminals are unfortunate, but in my view, often understandable. It may seem like I am unjustly defending government here, but whilst I agree that there are human rights infringements in South Africa, as there are in many countries around the world, I think that government does not have reason to be too perturbed by this report, as we are a work in progress. The US State Department report may be patently over-emphasising certain elements of the human rights 'abuses'.

Secondly, have a look at the media reporting on the State Department's document. There are very few countries that aren't fingered for some human rights issue, most especially police brutality. Even demure Canada has been criticised by the report for "worrying" police brutality. So I'm unsure as to whether we need to give this report too much credibility.

Finally, let's look at the US itself. Human rights abuses within its own security forces are not uncommon. Very few could contend that conditions in Guantanamo Bay are anything but dubious in terms of human rights. The Patriot Act has reframed the boundaries of human rights abuses in the US itself, with the result that many innocents have been held and jailed without the need for compelling evidence. The situation in Iraq? Well let's just say Abu Ghraib speaks volumes. According to Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs, "promoting human rights is not just an element of our foreign policy, it is the bedrock of our policy and our foremost concern". Interesting against this backdrop. Some human rights groups have already hit back at the report, saying that it describes as torture a number of techniques approved by the Bush administration to use on prisoners in US custody.

Perhaps its a case of taking the log out of one's own eye?