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Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Picture: 123RF/gary718
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Picture: 123RF/gary718

I’m writing this article in Berlin, a city I have visited often over the past 30 years, firstly as a poor law student backpacker on a shoestring budget, sleeping in a bunk bed at a jugendherberg (youth hostel), and then as a lawyer going to client meetings, staying in a fancy hotel overlooking Potsdamer Platz, where the Berlin Wall once divided east and West Berlin.

It is fair to say that this city, more than most others around the world, has seen its fair share of change over the past three decades, even propelling much of that change. In 1993, the Berlin Wall, symbol of division between East and West, had come down just four years earlier and the Soviet Union had been consigned to history. Democratic euphoria had swept the world.

SA had abolished apartheid. We were getting ready for our first democratic elections. Brazil had freed itself from its military dictatorship and was, like us, getting to grips with a promising democratic future. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had finally triumphed over authoritarianism.

Cumbersome and inefficient communist ideology gave way to efficient capitalism. The whole world, apart from a few outliers such as Cuba and China, had embraced democracy as the path to prosperity. Or so we hoped.

The optimism at the time was not entirely misplaced. In the 1990s and early 2000s the world’s economy grew at an astonishing pace as old enmities were cast aside. The Russians were now our friends, China joined the World Trade Organisation, the Brazilian real was stronger than the dollar, and Nelson Mandela was the most famous icon of liberty.

The Asian tigers roared. Everyone had become cosmopolitan. South-South co-operation become the buzzword for more business to be conducted between developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia.

Yet, as I now walked through the Brandenburg Gate, down Unter den Linden boulevard up to the Ukrainian protest in front of the Russian embassy, I asked myself what had happened to the exuberance I first encountered here in 1993. Why is a brutal war being waged on Berlin’s doorstep? Was Russia not swept up in the same human rights euphoria that was so prevalent in Berlin in 1993? Evidently not.

I continued my walk to the German History Museum, where there is an exhibition called “Roads Not Taken: Or, It Could Have Been Very Different” that explores how different history could have been had certain key events not taken place. What if Willy Brandt hadn’t fallen to his knees at a monument to the German occupation-era Warsaw ghetto uprising during a visit to Poland in 1970? What if East Germany had decided to follow Beijing’s example and brutally quash the 1989 uprising, rather than opening the borders for East Germans to go to West Germany (funny that West Germans didn’t flock to the socialist workers’ paradise).

It is a stark reminder of the restraint leaders in the West and the East showed in diffusing difficult situations, such as when US and Soviet tanks were seconds away from blowing each other to bits at Checkpoint Charlie. In 1993 it seemed that the whole world had realised we couldn’t carry on living like this; that we had to come together for the common good of humanity and planet earth alike.

Why then does it seem in 2023 that we have turned our backs on working together for the shared good of all? Why are Russia and China vying for African support against the West? Why do Africa and South America feel it is better to align with authoritarian regimes such as Iran, China and Russia that show little interest in respecting human rights, and to turn their backs on the West? It’s almost as if there is a general rebellion against the rule of law.


No sensible and compassionate person in his or her right mind can approve of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, or of Iranian women being killed for not wearing headscarves, or Chinese Uighurs being forced into re-education camps where they are stripped of their cultural identity. Why then do the Brics countries feel these regimes should be their friends?

Whenever some atrocity is committed by Russia, China, Iran or any other existing or prospective member of Brics it is portrayed as a fight against “Western hegemony”, an incomprehensible term that is used to sanctify any human rights violation anywhere (except in the West). When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silv was imprisoned after a sham trial by a clearly incompetent and biased judge who actively colluded with the prosecutor in the case to secure his conviction, the rule of law came to his rescue. Why then does he not criticise China when it arrests human rights lawyers?

Is it out of embarrassment? Is it simply a bridge too far to admit that Brics is ultimately a club for nations that have no respect for human rights and their populations, and so they must masquerade as fighters against Western hegemony? Surely developing nations can stand together and do business with each other, using their own currencies, without turning their backs on human rights?

Brics seems to have become a place where dictators and despots can mingle, with some token democracies, in a safe space without fear of being criticised for their human rights violations; a place where they can rebrand as freedom fighters struggling against evil Western hegemony while arresting human rights lawyers on the grounds of “endangering national security” and “seriously harming the image of the legal profession”.

I left the exhibition at the museum thinking that the world has gone back to the ’50s and is now taking the “roads not taken” then; that human rights are being treated as collateral damage along the way to a mythical new multipolar world.

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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