On April 7, Douma, in Syria, was subject to what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack. The Syrian government has an independently established (by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW) record of using chemical weapons in the current civil war, and against civilians. Following a Russian veto of a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that sought to establish an independent inquiry into what had happened at Douma, France, the UK and the US, early on April 14, jointly attacked targets identified as being of importance for Syria’s chemical weapons programme. Russia then tried to get the UNSC to pass a resolution condemning the tripartite attacks, but only won the support of China and Bolivia, and so failed.
On April 16, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) issued a statement titled ‘South Africa is opposed to the air strikes conducted in the territory of Syria’. In the statement, it said: “The South African government has noted with grave concern the airstrikes conducted by the United Kingdom, the United States and French military in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. From the onset, when the Syrian crisis broke out, South Africa has consistently and constantly called for a peaceful resolution for the conflict. The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria cannot be a justification for military airstrikes in a territory of a sovereign State without the authorisation of the UNSC. In the same vein, South Africa condemns the use of chemical weapons by any party in the Syrian territory.” (The statement goes on to call for the issue to be solved by the UNSC and the OPCW and for a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.)
Now, of course, Russia, China and South Africa are all members of the Brics alignment, along with Brazil and India, which raises the issue of the Brazilian and Indian responses to the Syrian air strikes. Brazil’s statement, issued on April 14, stated (my translation, as no official English translation was available at time of writing): “The Brazilian government expresses great concern at the escalation in the military conflict in Syria, as well as, once more, denouncing the use of chemical weapons on 7 April, in Douma, East Ghouta. It reaffirms the imperative for comprehensive and impartial investigations to be carried out into what occurred in East Ghouta, which leads to a determination of the facts and the punishment of those responsible. The overcoming of the conflict requires full respect for the United Nations (UN) Charter and international law, including the proscription of the use of chemical weapons, and effective dialogue. In this context, Brazil reite- rates the position that the end of the conflict can only be reached by a political route, by means of negotiations under the aegis of the UN and on the basis of Security Council resolutions.” (The rest of the note deals with consular matters concerning the Brazilian community in Syria.)
In response to media enquiries in that country, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson issued a statement, also dated April 14, which reads, in full: “We have taken note of the recent strikes in Syria. India is closely following the situation. The alleged use of chemical weapons, if true, is deplorable. We call for an impartial and objective investigation by the OPCW to establish the facts. In the meantime, we urge all parties to show restraint and to avoid any further escalation in the situation. The matter should be resolved through dialogue and negotiations, and on the basis of the principles of the UN Charter and in accordance with international law. We hope that the long-drawn suffering of the people of Syria would come to an end soon.”
Neither Brazil nor India expresses opposition to (or support of) the air strikes. India does not even express concern. But both immediately switch the focus of their statements to the reported use of chemical weapons in Douma, whereas South Africa/Dirco only mentions chemical weapons in the third of the five sentences in its statement. Brazil and India both demand impartial investigations into what happened in Douma, while South Africa makes no mention of investigating Douma at all. All support a negotiated solution.
Moreover, Brazil and India had previously issued statements after the reports of the attack on Douma. For Brazil, on April 10, the Ministry of External Relations issued a note (official English translation this time): “The Brazilian government expresses its grave concern over the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma, Syria, on April 7. The Brazilian government calls for an investigation within the framework of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and reiterates its repudiation of the use of weapons of mass destruction, regardless of its motivation.” (Full statement.)
Likewise, in a weekly media briefing (also in response to a question) on April 12, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said (again, this statement is given in full): “We have seen reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic. Any use of chemical weapons, anywhere, anytime by anybody under any circumstances is in complete disregard of humanity and is reprehensible and contrary to the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Conventions as well as accepted international norms. The perpetrators of such abhorrent acts must be held accountable.”
What was South Africa’s statement on the Douma attack reports? If the Dirco website is to be believed, there was none, which means that, if the three Western powers had not attacked Syria, South Africa would not have expressed any condemnation of the events in Douma at all. Indeed, as far as can be determined from the Dirco website, South Africa issued no statement condemning the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in Syria, in April last year, which was later independently confirmed by a joint UNSC/OPCW investigation. Pretoria does not seem to take chemical attacks seriously. Note also that, while Brazil calls for the “punishment” of those responsible for these attacks, and India demands they “be held accountable”, South Africa’s statement contains no such demands.
So, it seems that, with regard to the situation in Syria at least (and this situation is of global importance precisely because it risks making the use of chemical weapons “normal” again), South Africa’s foreign policy is in phase with Moscow and Beijing. But it is clearly totally out of phase with Brasília and New Delhi. To be aligned with the undemocratic members of Brics, and so far out of alignment with the other democratic members, is not, I would suggest, a good place for South Africa to be.