Omar al- Bashir. Picture: THE TIMES
Omar al- Bashir. Picture: THE TIMES

How is it possible not to be cynical about this statement: "SA reiterates its total commitment to the principles of international justice"?

The statement was made by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in response to the pretrial chamber of the International Criminal Court in connection with the visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the AU summit hosted in SA in June 2015.

SA argued before the court that Bashir had immunity under customary international law because he was, and is, a sitting head of state. The court, completely unsurprisingly, found that SA failed in its duty to comply with the court’s request for his surrender.

The reason the finding is unsurprising is that the court’s founding document, the one SA signed on joining, specifically says heads of state are not immune. Article 27.2 of the statute excludes immunity for heads of state from arrest.

Furthermore, the court’s jurisdiction to act was triggered by the UN Security Council resolution that referred the prosecution in Darfur to the prosecutor in the International Criminal Court.

In fact, the function of the court is, among other things, to ensure that leaders are not excluded, something South African diplomats would surely have been aware of. The court was set up and constructed in this way precisely to try to ensure that justice is ultimately meted out to murderous heads of state.

Instead of supporting this noble aim, SA allowed the Sudanese president to leave Johannesburg despite a court order instructing it to ensure he did not leave.

And then the ANC began campaigning against SA’s membership of the court on the basis that it was interfering with African "diplomacy". That decision was reaffirmed at the ANC policy conference, one of the few things on which delegates could agree.

In their own minds, the ANC delegates might think they are sticking one in the eye of an interfering European court that does not understand local conditions. In fact, SA is giving up the one diplomatic tool it had in its arsenal: the soft power of righteousness.

Small countries like SA struggle to have any influence on global politics, but SA could win support among foreign and particularly African populations and respect internationally by standing for democracy and justice, leveraging its remarkable transition into a foreign policy tool.

This is clearly what former president Nelson Mandela had in mind when he said in 1993: "Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs."

That legacy has been abominably squandered not only in the Bashir case but through neglect and active disassociation in other areas too.

Many argue this is a naive point of view and could never be sustained. Countries, it is often said, do not have permanent friends or allies, but only permanent interests.

Yet this is a generalised, world-weary perspective associated with global powers, not minnows trying to make a mark in a complicated world. The fact that it is difficult to implement a foreign policy based on human rights does not mean it should be totally scrapped.

Just one of many examples is the near state of emergency announced in Zambia. Far from helping SA negotiate a tricky continent, jettisoning human rights as a foundation of foreign policy closes the door on any influence it might have had to encourage a diplomatic solution.

SA’s influence on the continent could be large and could benefit African populations who have in the recent past suffered most from brute leaders. Instead, SA seems intent on leaving them to their own devices.

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