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Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at The National Consultative Workshop on South Africa’s Human Rights Treaty Obligations, held at the Burgers’ Park Hotel, Pretoria, 8 December 2017

Programme Director, Ms Yasmin Sooka
Members of Chapter 9 institutions
Members of civil society organisations
Ladies and gentlemen

On Sunday the world celebrates International Human Rights Day as 10 December is the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

This year, on International Human Rights Day, the UN kicks off a year-long campaign to mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being -- regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

One person who was deeply committed to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and who refers to it frequently in his addresses and writings is OR Tambo.

Another aspect that he was passionate about was the involvement of the international community in bringing about change in South Africa.

In his statement at the Plenary of the UN General Assembly, in November 1982, Tambo said –

“We wish also today to express our deep appreciation for the support and assistance that our struggle enjoys from the United Nations and its Member States, from nongovernmental organisations and from people around the globe.

Thanks to that support… our people, united in action, have become mighty in struggle. A new and democratic South Africa will yet be born.  Our common victory is certain.”

The point OR Tambo makes is a valid one.

The international community - albeit international treaty bodies, international institutions or civil society organizations acting in an international forum – all have a fundamental role to play in the attainment of human rights.

In 2016 and 2017, various South African delegations engaged with the UN Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

A delegation also went to the Gambia to engage with the African Commission on South Africa’s periodic African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) country reports. 

In May and September of this year, our delegation went to Geneva to present our Universal Periodic Review Country Report to the UNHRC.

At its 18th meeting, held on 12 May 2017, the UNHRC Working Group adopted the report on South Africa. South Africa received a total number of 243 recommendations. In broad terms the recommendations pertained to –

  • Acceptance of International Norms, Facilitation of Special Rapporteur Visits, Human Rights Reporting and Selection of Candidates for UN Treaty Bodies,
  • Strengthening of the South African Human Rights Commission and other Human Rights Monitoring Mechanisms,
  • The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill and the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,
  • Non-Discrimination, Social Cohesion, Nation Building and Promotion of the National Development Plan
  • Violence against Women
  • Indigenous Peoples
  • Human Rights Standards,
  • Protection of the Environment
  • Law enforcement, Crime, Corruption, Human Rights Education and Training and Conditions of Detention
  • Good Governance and the Rule of Law
  • Prohibition of Trafficking
  • Freedom of Expression and opinion
  • Right to Health, Work and Education
  • Right to an adequate Standard of Living, Right to Food, Drinking Water and Sanitation
  • Eradication of Poverty, Inequality, Unemployment, and Economic Development and Empowerment, Social Protection.

South Africa then had to report back to the UNHRC on its progress made since May 2017 and therefore the delegation again appeared before the UNHRC on Friday, 22 September 2017.

At the meeting, South Africa noted the recommendations made by the Working Group and 187 recommendations were accepted.

These recommendations are receiving the attention of Government and are at various phases in the planning and implementation process. 

The remainder of the recommendations are of an ongoing nature and thus require further and more detailed consideration.  South Africa advised that it will therefore report comprehensively on all the recommendations at our next country review in 2021.

Some 34 countries responded to South Africa’s report as well as the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and 22 NGOs.

The SAHRC commended the South African government for their extensive participation in the Third Cycle of the UPR mechanism and noted the significant advances made since the last review process.

Human rights can only be advanced and achieved if we continuously assess our progress – and reporting to treaty bodies is a valuable way of doing this.

Stakeholder submissions – or shadow reports, as we sometimes call them - are a unique tool to strengthen these processes as it illuminates what government has done with respect to what it claims to have achieved.   By stakeholders we mean NGOs, national human rights institutions, human rights defenders, academic institutions and research institutes, regional organizations, as well as civil society representatives.

These processes also provide stakeholders with an international forum to raise concerns - it is an opportunity for further advocacy in an international legal environment.

Ultimately, stakeholder submissions have an impact on the Concluding Observations and subsequently on the state party’s actions, programmes and initiatives. The resulting Concluding Observations issued by a treaty body can also be very useful in subsequent advocacy work.

Indeed we are enjoined by the UNHRC and other treaty bodies to consult widely with civil society and stakeholders outside government in the compilation of our country reports. And we welcome this.

We need to strengthen our engagements with civil society for they provide us with a valuable critique to either initiate or amend programmes and policies that are not working as well as expected.

Another way of increasing civil society involvement is to partner with NGOs and civil society in programs and initiatives. Many of our programmes that are working well, like our National Task Team on LGBTI Rights, are successful because government is working hand-in-hand with civil society.

At the heart of the developmental state is the firm belief that no single role-player can do it alone.  Role-players – whether it be government, or civil society, or national human rights institutions – need to work together in a focused and coordinated way in order to make the biggest impact.

The NDP articulates a vision of an active citizenry and a social compact is key to us achieving Vision 2030.  As political and social activist, Abbie Hoffmann, once remarked that –

"Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles."

Active citizenry and social activism is necessary for democracy and development to flourish. The state cannot merely act on behalf of the people – it has to act with the people, working together with other institutions to provide opportunities for the advancement of all communities.

Active citizenry and participatory democracy are vital elements of a constitutional democracy.  The National Development Plan sees active citizenship as equalising opportunities and enhancing human capabilities.

The theme for International Human Rights Day 2017 is #StandUp4HumanRights.

And we know that when it comes to standing up for human rights, NGOs and civil society bodies are at the very coalface, on the ground, in our communities, reaching where sometimes government structures cannot.

The theme for International Human Rights Day urges us to stand up for our own rights and those of others. We can take action in our own daily lives, to uphold the rights that protect us all and thereby promote the kinship of all human beings.  

I want to conclude with the words of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“Ultimately it is up to us, to ‘we the people,’ for whom this Declaration was written. It is up to me; to you; to everyone in every city, province and country where there is still space to express thoughts, participate in decisions, raise one's voice. We need to act to promote peace, fight back against discrimination, and to uphold justice.

We must organize and mobilise in defence of human decency, in defence of a better common future.

We must not stand by, bewildered, as the post-World War II system of values unravels around us. We must take a robust and determined stand: by resolutely supporting the human rights of others, we also stand up for our own rights and those of generations to come.”

I want to wish you all a highly productive workshop. Do not hesitate to hold us - as government - to account, to show us where we can improve, where more can be done, where we can improve on our reporting obligations.

Ultimately, we all want the same thing: a better common future.

I thank you.