U.N. Expert Highlights Xenophobia in South Africa, Calls for Hate Crime Legislation

International human rights bodies have periodically evaluated the response of the South African government to xenophobic and other forms of bias-motivated violence. Since waves of attacks on foreigners swept the country in 2008, the government continues to struggle to address this type of violence. Although on a lesser scale, attacks against foreigners and threats of violence have been a regular part of the lives of many refugees, migrants, and other foreigners living in South Africa. On May 31, the U.N. Human Rights Council discussed the work of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge Bustamante. Speaking generally, Bustamente reported that “migrants were often subject to xenophobic outbreaks of abuse and violence.” Indeed, xenophobic violence is a global problem that has been extensively documented in many countries, including in South Africa, a country Mr. Bustamante visited earlier this year. In a special country report released on that visit and made available to the U.N. delegates, the Special Rapporteur recognized that the government had taken some steps to address the xenophobic attacks against migrants. In 2008, during the worst outbreak of violence in recent years, foreign nationals were targeted and attacked in over 130 locations in various parts of South Africa. More than sixty people were killed, hundreds injured, and over 100,000 displaced. Last year, as the world’s attention was captivated by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, migrants and refugees feared of venturing out because of reported threats of new clashes. These threats weren’t unfounded: after the Cup, in spite of considerable efforts by the government to prevent any outbreaks of violence, four foreigners were murdered in Johannesburg. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur’s report on his mission to South Africa made important recommendations, many of which have been previously advanced by the South African Human Rights Commission, as well as by domestic and international civil society groups—the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, the African Centre for Migration and SocietyLawyers for Human Rights, and Human Rights First. The Special Rapporteur called on the authorities to:

  • “make any act of violence against individuals or property on the basis of a person’s race, nationality, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity (‘hate crime’) an aggravating circumstance”;
  • “provide effective resources and training for police, justice and other relevant officials to ensure the successful implementation of the provisions of the law, including training on detecting, recording and prosecuting hate crimes, as well as monitoring any trends in them”; and
  • establish “a permanent body in the office of the Presidency to ensure effective coordination of different government department programs on social cohesion, addressing xenophobia, police profiling and tackling hate crimes.”

These recommendations of the Special Rapporteur echo a similar set of recommendations included in a comprehensive report of the South African Human Rights Commission, an independent national commission, that last year released the results of an investigation of the 2008 episodes of xenophobic violence. The Commission highlighted significant levels of impunity for the perpetrators of violence and pointed to weaknesses in intergovernmental coordination and institutional processes that hindered the response to the 2008 crisis. The Commission also prescribed the Department of Justice to develop hate crime legislation, and the police to review and enhance its collaboration with communities vulnerable to hate violence. These recommendations are in line with international commitments and norms adopted by the Government of South Africa. Human Rights First has been calling on countries across the globe to fulfill their promises of combating bias-motivated violence. Our Ten-Point Plan outlines what governments should do to combat hate crimes—including xenophobic violence and that affects refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. These initiatives to improve state responses to attacks against migrants, refugees, and minorities in South Africa come at a fitting time. This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention of 1951, and UNHCR is asking governments to use this opportunity to “pledge” to take steps to improve protections for refugees. UNHCR has also identified xenophobic violence as a “protection issue,” outlining a strategic approach on “Combating Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance” in December 2009. This year presents an opportunity for the South African government to engage in the pledging process and take action on these commitments as one means of responding to calls for greater action from the country’s vibrant civil society, its national human rights institution, and now from the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Are you in South Africa? Let’s discuss below or via twitter: @0discrimination.


Published on June 3, 2011


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