“SOUTH Africans are not the only ones debating the role of human rights in foreign policy. Twenty-five years after Czechs achieved their peaceful democratic revolution, they too are debating whether their foreign policy is contrary to the ideals of Vaclav Havel and the others who risked their lives to secure freedom at home and influence abroad as a human rights leader.
To air these issues, the Czech foreign ministry recently convened an international conference, titled Foreign Policy on Human Rights for the 21st Century. Several hundred Czechs attended and there was extensive national media coverage. Eighteen foreign human rights activists and practitioners were invited as panellists, from the US, European Union, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
In his opening address, the foreign minister suggested there could be alternative and attractive ways to frame Czechs’ post-Havel human rights foreign policy — one, he said, that would be less identified with US selective use of force to secure human rights. As an alternative, he suggested closer alignment with Brics nations, which he suggested were wisely emphasising social and economic over political and civil rights.
Overall, the proceedings revealed no disagreement over the enduring universality of basic human rights, with political and civil rights as necessary preconditions for realising all other rights and frequent references to the importance of the Czech example as an inspiration to others and the basis for its international influence and leadership.
Surprisingly little was said about the advantages or dangers for human rights of Chinese autocratic capitalism. The sharpest criticisms were of the threats to Czech national security from Russia, including abetting of human rights abuses in nearby former Soviet republics.
The controversial role of human rights in US foreign policy, however, got the most attention.
Several speakers complained about US “double standards” in human rights interventions; an over-reliance on military means; the disregard for human rights in the use of torture, drones, and detention without trial in combating terrorism; and a culture of impunity that allows even those found guilty to avoid punishment.
On this, too, Czech and South African foreign policies converge.
South African participants would have likely found the final panel most relevant, especially the views of former struggle veterans, who showed dismay over the present government’s less assertive defence of human rights defenders, in China and elsewhere.
SA does not, of course, face a security threat comparable to the one the Czechs face from Russia, but the panellists still hold that a more activist human rights foreign policy is a better political defence than accommodation.
With the US absorbed with overcoming the consequences of its past misadventures in Iraq and the Middle East, the Czechs seek partners beyond Western Europe.
The Czech foreign ministry may have envisioned a different outcome, but most Czech speakers appear to be seeking, above all, compatible and reliable democratic partners, whose human rights foreign policies are more in line with those of the human rights heroes who once risked their lives to transform the then Czechoslovakia. Such partnerships would be valuable in shoring up national commitments to human rights in domestic and foreign policy. But it was argued that government policies in support of human rights lacked sufficient coherence at home and abroad.
SA and the Czech Republic may have different national interests but they do share vital values and are facing challenges in adapting them to conditions at home and abroad.
Perhaps the Department of International Relations and Co-operation should consult the Czech foreign ministry about convening in Pretoria a 2015 sequel to the international conference just held in Prague, and with a similar agenda, although instead of focusing on a dialogue between Europe and the US, SA might include a topic on the Brics in human rights dialogue.
The Czechs set a good example by adopting a broad agenda and inviting a diverse array of opinions, and allowing a free-wheeling debate, attributes South Africans appreciate and which might advance a debate here of the importance of foreign policy on human rights.”
John Stremlau is visiting professor in the Department of International Relations at Wits University.