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The Johannesburg Brics summit kicked off on an unseasonably warm Tuesday. Policemen and women relaxed in the sun, looking slightly bored. Far above a few fighter jets made a noise. For an event so hotly anticipated, the atmosphere was less than electrifying.  

But the prospect of becoming part of Brics excites many. More than 40 countries have indicated that they are interested in joining this bloc of emerging economies, of which more than 20 — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Indonesia — have made formal requests for membership.  

In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s opening statement, delivered on Tuesday afternoon, he expressed enthusiasm for an expanded Brics. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who in his virtual statement appeared sulky over sanctions and desperate for friends, is similarly pleased with the prospect of expansion.

It is expected that the summit will bring some clarity on membership criteria, an issue the Brics countries failed to agree on at previous gatherings. Perhaps because all three of the major powers in Brics — Russia, China and India — are repeat offenders when it comes to respecting human rights. In fact, all have committed international crimes, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. 

While few countries have squeaky clean human rights records, the scale and extent of human rights violations in China, Russia and India are staggering. Whatever membership criteria get decided on they are sure not to include human rights, democracy or the rule of law, since if compliance were to become a criterion, most of the current Brics members would have to be suspended.

Over the months leading up to the 15th Brics Summit there was much ado about Putin’s attendance after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest in March. As the court’s investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues it is highly possible that other members of his government — including foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who is leading his country’s delegation at the summit — could also face war crime charges.

It is clear that complicity goes deeper and wider than Putin and Russia’s children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, who have been accused by the ICC of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia. It has been estimated that more than 80,000 war crimes have been committed by Russia since its illegal invasion of Ukraine. The ICC investigation is expected to continue for some years, and it has previously issued arrest warrants in a staggered fashion.

China not only represses political opposition but brutally oppresses its Uyghur population. The state of oppression is said to have become more severe under President Xi Jinping’s rule, with more than 1-million Uyghur people interned in so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang province, and a shoot-to-kill policy applied for those trying to escape.

In May Human Rights Watch reported that Muslims in Xinjiang are being flagged as violent extremists simply for practising their religion. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused China of crimes against humanity.  

India President Narendra Modi is similarly brutal in his oppression of India’s Muslim minority. Officials in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have openly called for genocide of Muslims. Journalists in India are repeatedly censured, and detention without trial is common. 

In addition, should human rights become a criterion for Brics membership many of the countries interested in joining would not get through the door. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran all fail spectacularly short of even the most basic human rights standards. 

Yet human rights observance has become a standard criterion for admission to many international organisations and groups. It is globally acknowledged that human rights compliance makes good business sense and trade and human right linkages are manifold.

Delegates walk past the logos of the Brics summit in Johannesburg. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/REUTERS
Delegates walk past the logos of the Brics summit in Johannesburg. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/REUTERS

For example, the route to membership of the EU is long and difficult, and many countries have stumbled because of their human rights records. Even Ukraine, (perhaps unfairly) accused of being the darling of the West, has failed to meet all the accession criteria.

The main EU membership criteria are a free-market economy, a stable democracy, adherence to the rule of law, and acceptance of all EU legislation, including the euro. The EU is expecting Ukraine to make more progress on issues such as fighting corruption and selecting independent judges before it is allowed to apply for membership.  

Closer to home, subregional African development communities such as the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States and the East African Community have made human rights compliance a formal membership requirement, and require their members to comply with human rights and the rule of law.  

The World Trade Organisation has not integrated human rights in its membership requirements. This has been largely to its detriment, since the body is increasingly criticised for not taking human rights more seriously. 

When Brics was created in 2009 the membership requirements included that the country have a large population, but when SA was invited to join by China in 2010 these requirements were relaxed. Countries such as China and Russia need all the friends they can get. It is therefore unlikely that the membership criteria developed this week — should consensus on such criteria be reached — will be particularly stringent.

They are likely to be as permissive as possible, reflecting deeper confusion and lack of clarity about Brics’ concrete goals and focus. Deciding on Brics membership might be rather like accumulating Facebook friends, an exercise that makes one look good but requires little commitment.

Even so, human rights will remain the elephant in the Brics room.  

• Swart is visiting professor at the Wits Law School. 

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