South African-based civil society organisations together with the LGBTI community and human-rights based entities were shocked by the country’s abstention at the crucial voting that took place at the UN Human Rights Council on 30 June 2016 on a resolution aimed at establishing an Independent Expert on violence and discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. South Africa’s abstentions on voting on the day had far-reaching consequences. SA leadership could have helped build regional support and shape a more positive and inclusive dynamic; as it was, states like Angola, which co-sponsored the resolution at an early stage, were left feeling isolated, and withdrew co-sponsorship. In addition, South Africa abstained, not only on passing the resolution as a whole, but also on hostile amendments introduced by states that are in opposition to the human rights of LGBTI people.

For example, one suggested amendment expressed concern at the international human rights system inclusion of SOGI issues, terming them “social” and outside of the human rights framework. This amendment was adopted by a single vote of 18-17, with 9 abstentions. If South Africa had opposed this derogatory language, instead of abstaining, the vote would have been 18-18, with 8 abstentions, and the amendment would not have passed. Finally, the resolution as a whole passed with several hostile amendments, and the South African government’s choice to abstain was as damaging as having voted against the resolution.

Despite South Africa attending resolution negotiations, it did not speak, engage, present concerns or make proposals. In its explanation of its abstention, South Africa also attacked the Latin American states sponsoring the resolution, calling their approach “polarising”. In fact, numerous delegations praised the lead sponsors for their collaborative and respectful approach, and despite South Africa’s allegations of polarisation, the margin of support for the resolution creating the Independent Expert was actually higher than for South Africa’s own resolution in 2011. Ironically, South Africa also invoked its own Constitution and the struggle against Apartheid, a history that has taught South Africa a more collaborative approach seeking “maximum unity in the council”, overlooking that it was in part, international pressure from the UN that contributed to the end of Apartheid.

Iranti engaged with various civil society organisations to collate reactions from civil society to South Africa’s voting, and increase awareness of the impact the state’s regional and global actions have on South African and broader African LGBTI communities.