A Human Rights Approach to Safety and Security

On 21 March, the day that South Africa celebrates its human rights day, the South African Embassy in The Hague organised a conference called 'The Right Approach to Safety and Security'. The Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, Piet de Klerk, spoke after the South African Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula.

Mr. Minister, madam ambassador, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a privilege to be here again, on South Africa’s Human Rights Day, as part of this much appreciated tradition in the Embassy of South Africa.

At 1.30 in the morning of March 30 1960 Nelson Mandela heard some sharp, unfriendly knocks on his door. There was no doubt in his mind, that it was the police and indeed it was. They had come to arrest him without a warrant and without a legal basis, but the apartheid regime of the day wanted him for his leadership in the revolt against the Pass Laws. In his memoirs Mandela writes about the preparations for the peaceful resistance against the new version of the pass laws and –interestingly enough- about the “competition” between the Pan African Congress (PAC) and the ANC in leading the resistance activities. In fact, he argues that it was because of the “hijacking” by the PAC of the ANC-initiative that the events got ahead of themselves and that the demonstrations started much earlier than on the intended date of 31 March. That is probably why the events in Sharpeville on 21 March came to the authorities of the day as a surprise and may partly explain their reaction.

We all know what happened: when the crowd broke through a fence, the police opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators without a direct order and complete chaos followed. At the end of the day 69 people were dead and 180 were wounded. The Sharpeville massacres were a fact of history and one of the reasons why we are here today is to commemorate these events. Fortunately, there are more reasons why we celebrate 21 March as Human Rights Day and I will come back to the other reasons later on.

I recall these terrible events here today, not only because we should never forget them, but also because they clearly show the particular “logic” behind them. And this “logic” is still operational in some countries in the world: I only have to point to the tragic events within the borders of South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe.

These events also show that the right approach to safety and security is the rights approach. Let me explain. In the eyes of the South African authorities of the day, the demonstrations were a clear defiance of their policy of apartheid, aimed at segregating the various ethnicities of society. It was aimed at the exclusion of the majority of the population from mainstream society. From a human rights perspective such a policy clearly contradicts the logic of a society and government based on the principles of human rights: the logic of inclusiveness.

That is why the reaction to the Sharpeville massacres was so widespread and unisono: it galvanised the politically marginalised organisations within South Africa in its struggle for the abolition of apartheid. It gave rise to widespread international condemnation by democratic governments and initiated the debate on a boycott of the South African apartheid regime. And fortunately the United Nations Security Council in those days did not consider itself an inappropriate forum for condemning the “internal” events in one of its member states: it blamed the government for the shootings and urged it to initiate measures to bring about racial equality. It is ironic (and in my view unfortunate), that in the month that South Africa assumes the Presidency of the Security Council, it seems to be unwilling to let the UN-secretariat brief the Council on the dramatic developments in Zimbabwe.

So the notion of security cannot be seen as separate from the notion of human rights. Security and human rights are often closely linked. Irrespective of the concept of security we apply, security can lead to repression. In this respect I hope we all agree, that in applying security measures

  • everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and without discriminaton, every individual has rights
  • every individual has rights with equal rights for men and women; there should be zero tolerance for sexist crimes;
  • rights imply duties and responsibilities, first and foremost for the State and its servants; no arbitrary detention, no torture etc;
  • the rule of law should be applied: a) people to be ruled by the objective application of general laws, hence the need for an independent and incorruptible judiciary; b) nobody should stand above the law; c) nobody should fall outside the protection of the law;
  • There should be full transparency in the whole security column;
  • And finally trust bottom-up participatory processes: stakeholders in the political process are less likely to break the law and to operate outside legal frameworks.

When we look beyond the horizon of national security, we should consider the broader interpretation of the notion of security: human security. Human security is a relatively new concept which has found its way into much of the thinking within the United Nations family. One of the best descriptions I have come across, I found in the Human Security Report of 2005, in which Bishop Desmond Tutu is quoted: “Human security privileges people over states, reconciliation over revenge, diplomacy over deterrence, and multilateral engagement over coercive unilateralism.” You could say: human security is the human rights based approach to security.

In my view, we have a fruitful set of concepts here which can help us in understanding the complex issues at hand in South African politics today. In spite of the enormous efforts by and successes of the democratic government of South Africa since 1994, South Africa is still a dual society with a “first” and “second” economy, in which a large portion of the population demands its share in the wealth which has been created since the abolitions of apartheid. The disturbingly high crime figures of South Africa should be seen against this background and at the same time they cannot be understood without understanding the violent past of the apartheid days. Nevertheless, a solution has to be found, because crime - apart from the human suffering it causes - is a brake on development, deters foreign investment and keeps tourists away.

An emphasis on human security is closely related to a human rights based approach to development in which the rights of individuals as laid down in the different UN conventions are the starting point of any development process. The South African diplomacy has put emphasis on the need for a new convention that would lay down the “right to development”. While, of course, we do not dispute the right to development, both of States and of individuals, we see this primarily as a right that need to be strengthened in practice. Anyhow, the policy of the democratic government of South Africa over the past thirteen years has shown that it is committed to human rights based approach to development, Minister Nqakula already referred tot the right to housing, to food, to health as starting points for South Africa’s development process. It also follows from the Minister’s speech that South Africa is committed to an agenda of human security. First of all, it has created the basis for solid economic growth, which makes the objective of a more equitable income distribution more achievable. Secondly, the active intervention of the government in the economy aimed at bringing the formerly disadvantaged groups within the mainstream of society (Black Economic Empowerment, the Land Policy and many social programmes) have at least had some success. And thirdly, but certainly not in the last place: the guarantee under the Constitution that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and that their rights are protected under the same Constitution and under the Bill of Rights.

That brings me to the second reason why we are here today: the celebration of Constitution Week, in which we commemorate the distribution of millions of copies of the Constitution in the week of 17-21 March 1996 in all eleven official languages of South Africa. The Constitution which took effect on February 4, 1997 guarantees the rights of all South Africans to an equal application of general laws. It obliges the government to respect the constitutional rights of all South Africans, including the obligation to “i mprove the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person ” [Preamble to the Constitution].

That is a fundamental difference compared to the days of apartheid, where people could hear knocks on their doors in the middle of the night and could be arrested without a warrant or on the basis of unjust laws.

The struggle of Nelson Mandela and of all those who fought with him has not been in vain. This struggle is first and foremost a South African struggle, but if we take the concepts I have spoken about seriously, this is not a struggle that is confined within national borders, Therefore, I want to echo the words of Minister Nqakula and say that this is a question of international solidarity as well.

Thank you.