South Africa envoy urges Ukraine peace talks, says Canada stance on war 'shocking'


South Africa’s envoy to Ottawa is urging Canada to help broker an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine, arguing that sending arms to Kyiv will only prolong a dangerous conflict that is aggravating hunger in developing countries.

“We have all the instruments of human agency to stop this war, but we just simply don’t want to,” Rieaz Shaik said.

In a wide-ranging interview, he said Russia needs to be held accountable, but urged the Trudeau government to drastically change course on its most central foreign-policy issue.

“I just hope they could stop for a moment and reflect [on] how much Canada has contributed to peace in the world. And why throw that away?”

South Africa is among 32 countries that have abstained from United Nations votes calling on Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.

While Canada and other G7 countries have said they will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, the majority of the world’s population lives in countries that have opted against outright condemning Russia for the invasion.

Some of them depend on trade with Russia, while others want good relations with Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Many have voiced contempt for European concerns taking away attention and development dollars from longer-lasting conflicts elsewhere.

Soviet support decades ago for anti-colonial movements also prompts some to voice support for Moscow, even though Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

South Africa is ruled by the African National Congress, a political party that grew out of an anti-apartheid organization that had members trained by the Soviet Union in military tactics.

Shaik insists South Africa’s motives are to defuse the conflict.

A man speaks to the UN General Assembly virtually.
President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa speaks via video link during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on Sept. 23, 2021. South Africa is one of 32 states that have abstained from votes calling for Russia to end its invasion. (Spencer Platt/The Associated Press)

“Let me just say it categorically: South Africa is opposed to the invasion of Ukraine. The violation of the UN Charter is unacceptable to us. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be maintained,” he said.

“The only part where we are saying we have an alternative voice is that we do not believe that the solution to those violations lies in war, or counter-war or anything else.”

Shaik said the United Nations Security Council must broker a resolution to the conflict, even if it requires a reform of an institution that has largely followed the same rules since 1945 and gives Russia veto powers.

He argued this approach would bear more fruit than Ukraine and its Western allies refusing to undertake peace talks with Moscow until Russia returns all occupied territory.

“If you put an outcome of a negotiation as a requirement to negotiate, then you’re not going to have negotiations,” he said.

Moscow’s concerns should be acknowledged, envoy says

The ambassador said the world could better acknowledge that Moscow has security interests and make commitments to alleviate its concerns. In exchange, Russia would be subject to agreed-upon mechanisms to ensure it respects Ukraine’s borders.

That was the exact idea behind the 2014 and 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements that he argues both sides didn’t respect, but which Ukraine argues left the country vulnerable to further invasion. Russia claimed it could not order separatists to respect the deals, despite emboldening these groups.

“If Putin’s fear of NATO expansion is making Europe fragile, then remove that fear,” Shaik said.

A man with grey hair and a black fur-collared coat walks outside next to an officer wearing a black fur cap with gold details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, has accepted an invitation to the BRICS summit in South Africa later this summer, which could prove a test for South Africa’s commitment to the International Criminal Court. (Reuters)

He argued that’s a much more productive response than having leaders ponder whether Russia is trying to re-establish the Tsar, or if Putin is mentally unstable, as Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has suggested.

“The only thing that the bogeyman narrative does is create fear. And we must never forget that fear produces cruelty.”

Shaik added that any reconciliation process must look at the wrongdoings of both sides. “It is hard to believe that in war, only one side committed atrocities,” he said.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war, though the reports are far less common than documented abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers, and Kyiv more often follows through with criminal investigations.

South African authorities will have to grapple with whether to enforce an International Criminal Court warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin if he follows through on plans to attend the BRICS Summit — which also includes Brazil, India and China — this August in Johannesburg.

Ottawa has told developing countries that Russia is to blame for driving up living costs and distracting the global community from dealing with climate change. Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, often makes the case that not laying such blame will set a precedent for other countries to violate sovereignty.

“There is no grand conspiracy against Russia. The international community is not anti-Russian. Russia is facing the consequences of its own actions,” Rae told the General Assembly last October, shortly before its latest vote to condemn the invasion.

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