Libya's election to the chairmanship of the United Nations Human Rights Commission this week raised eyebrows across the world. The oppressive nature of Libya's government and disregard for human rights are well known and thoroughly documented. The European countries, including France, Germany and Great Britain, which abstained during the vote and thus assured Libya's victory, are partly to blame for Libya's election. Incapacitated by colonial guilt, political correctness, and hypersensitivity to criticism emanating from the developing countries, the Europeans have continuously ignored human rights abuses by some of the world's most unsavory regimes. In fact, they made the situation in the developing world worse by subsidizing African dictators through foreign aid.
But it was the South African government that actively promoted Libya's candidacy. Yes, South Africa, the nation whose leaders today fought so hard to end apartheid, now endorses Libya as a "human rights" monitor.
South African diplomats nominated Libya for the chairmanship and then mustered the necessary votes from among the African and Arab blocs. When the United States broke with the tradition of electing the chair of the commission by acclamation and forced a vote on the issue, the South African ambassador to the UNHRC called the American action "regrettable."
Promotion of dictatorships like Libya casts a huge shadow over South Africa's own commitment to good governance. As such, it is contrary to South Africa's long-term political and economic interest.
South Africa is a darling of the international community. It is perceived as a shining example of multi-racial cohabitation and democratic pluralism unknown elsewhere on the war-ravaged African continent. That legacy of toleration and enlightened governance is Nelson Mandela's lasting monument. But the current South African president is well on the way to dissipating the good will toward his country in the United States and elsewhere. To be sure, Mandela's presidency was always going to be a tough act to follow. From the start, Thabo Mbeki seemed like a puzzling choice to succeed him. Still, Mbeki's performance on both the domestic and international scenes is less stellar by the day.
The country suffers from stratospheric levels of crime, low economic growth and an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mbeki's response to those issues was to withhold crime statistics, retard economic growth through restrictive labor laws and nationalization of mineral rights, and deny the link between HIV and AIDS. Corruption is so rampant that Nelson Mandela felt compelled to criticize his own party, the African National Congress. Mbeki's apparatchiks dismissed Mandela as a man of the past. Instead of addressing pressing domestic problems, the South African president chose to focus on international affairs, dispensing "wisdom" about such matters as the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and possible war in Iraq.
At a significant cost to the South African taxpayer, Mbeki became the first South African president to acquire a presidential jet, which is to enable him to pursue his new role as a globetrotting statesman. Apparently, every prominent African head of state ought to have one. While his people starved, Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko chartered Concord Es from Air France and enlarged the airport in his hometown to facilitate the planes' easy landings.
Mbeki may not be Mobutu, but he has shown himself to be thoroughly insensitive to the plight of South Africa's poor. To help them, Mbeki should make every effort to spur economic growth at home. To do that, the South African government must reassure the world business community that it believes in economic freedom, the rule of law, and is willing to guarantee private property rights.
Judging by the company he keeps, President Mbeki is sending the opposite signals. South Africa was the only democratic country to recognize the outcome of Zimbabwe's deeply compromised presidential elections and Mbeki sent his deputy to congratulate Mugabe on his "victory." At no point -- until very recently -- did Mbeki voice his concern over rape of women, torture and intimidation of opposition, starvation of the population and unlawful expropriation of the farmers in Zimbabwe. During the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Robert Mugabe was welcomed as a friend.
Another heartfelt welcome was extended to Colonel Gaddafi, who visited South Africa during the launch of one of Mbeki's grand international designs: the African Union. On that occasion Gaddafi promised to bankroll Mbeki's plan. It appears that one of the things Gaddafi asked for in return was the chairmanship of the UNHRC.
By his actions, President Mbeki deeply compromised the values of democratic South Africa. It may take a long time for South Africa to fully recover its lost reputation.