GENEVA - Former South African Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs says it is crucial for his country to always be seen on the side of justice, reason and humanity in international bodies such as the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Sachs was in Geneva on during a sitting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, to speak about South Africa 20 years after its first universal suffrage elections on at a special screening of a recently released film about him, "Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa."
The director of the International Service for Human Rights, Phil Lynch, who hosted Sachs with support from the Legal Resources Centre, said Thursday that as one of the drafters of South African Constitution he is a huge inspiration to the thousands of human rights defenders ISHR trains.
The Johannesburg-based Legal Resources Centre is in partnership with the Canon Collins Education and Legal Assistance Trust, named after Anglican prelate Rev. John Collins of St Paul's Cathedral in London.
"This is a man who has survived more trials than many of us will ever have to endure," said Lynch speaking about Sachs.
BLOWN UP BY CAR BOMB
"In 1988 he was blown up by a car bomb set by the South African security forces in Maputo, Mozambique, which cost him his right arm and the sight of one eye.
"It is miraculous that Albie survived and arguably even more astounding that in spite of these ordeals he has achieved such great things for the global human rights movement."
As he was recovering in a London hospital Sachs received a note reading: "Don't worry, comrade Albie, we will avenge you."
Sachs wondered, "What kind of country would it be if it ended up filled with people who were blind and without arms? If we achieve democracy, freedom and the rule of law, then that will be my soft vengeance."
Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Anglican Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in the film, "Albie could so easily have been consumed by hatred and lust for revenge. Instead he helped build a vibrant democracy. The film shows this and Soft Vengeance should be seen by as many as possible."
When he returned to South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Sachs helped write the country's new constitution and was then appointed as one of the first 11 judges to the new Constitutional Court.
He drafted the opinion in which South Africa became the fifth country in the world to uphold same sex marriage and has travelled the world as a spokesperson for human rights, reconciliation and peace.
The film is narrated by Alfre Woodard, American film, stage and television actress, producer and political activist.
DIRECTOR ABBY GINZBERG
"We were honored to have Alfre narrate this film," said Abby Ginzberg, filmmaker and director of Soft Vengeance. "She was one of the staunchest U.S. allies of the anti-apartheid movement."
Sachs spoke to Ecumenical News while in Geneva, often referred to as the human rights capital of the world, for the screening of "Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the new South Africa."
He said he was not familiar with many of the workings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, but did know about its recent actions on Sri Lanka, whose government was lambasted by for its treatment of the Tamil minority and for sectarian violence in the country.
Former South African High Court judge Navi Pillay is the current U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who has been praised by the International Service for Human Rights which hosted Sachs and other human rights organizations.
ISHR director Phil Lynch said that Pillay, whose terms ends in September, "was accessible to civil society, provided protection and support to human rights defenders, stood up and spoke out for universal human rights and against discrimination in all of its forms, and was unafraid to confront privilege and power."
But some of the actions of South Africa in the Human Rights Council have come under fire recently by human rights groups active the U.N. body which accepts submission from NGOs.
Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director of the Human Right Watch Africa Division wrote on June 9, "South Africa's international record on human rights is faltering.
"While the country is a strong supporter of combating racism and poverty, it is unwilling to hold other countries to account for their own human rights violations."
She noted, "At the March session [of the HRC], South Africa sought to weaken a resolution on the right to free protest – in line with Russia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China – and took negative stances on other rights issues."
She said it also abstained from voting on all country situations, including on North Korea, Syria, Sri Lanka, and Iran.
Sachs said that South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had been "a kind of mediator" on Sri Lanka, which was came under fire at the council for its treatment of its Tamil minority.
I assume it was felt that South Africa should not take a stand," because it had been a mediator and it should not be seen to take sides.
'SOUH AFRICA MUST ALWAYS BE ON SIDE OF JUSTICE'
Sachs said, however, " It is important for South Africa to be seen always to be on the on the side of justice, the side of reason and humanity and also the side of negotiations, on the side of accommodation and finding creative ways to avoid standoff offs in sits that intensify divisions."
He was asked about concerns that were raised about South Africa's Protection of State Information Bill at the Human Rights Council in 2012.
"It [the bill] has been hugely controversial but we know about it because press is alive and well is being vociferous. South Africans are not going to be cowed. People have got used to speaking their minds," said Sachs.
Along with the huge role of South Africans speaking out about the bill Sachs said, "Parliament played a huge role. The fact is that the parliamentary process linked up with civil society and the press is keeping the issue alive."
He added that "If the measure is passed, people can go to the Constitutional Court."
On his way to Geneva, Sachs joined X-Men and Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen with five other who were awarded honorary degrees by Cambridge University on June 18. It was his 19th honorary degree.
The LRC provides legal services for the vulnerable and marginalized, including the poor, homeless, and landless people of South Africa who suffer discrimination due to of race, class, gender, disability or stemming from social, economic, and historical circumstances.
The ISHR works closely with civil society and church-based groups at the U.N. and the agency Brot für die Welt (Berlin), started by Germany's Protestant churches is one of its trust foundations.