One of the world’s leading human rights experts told a UC Berkeley audience that South Africa could provide insights into the future of Egypt — and perhaps other uprisings and changes in government now taking place throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Richard Goldstone, 72, teaches law at Stanford University. His comments came on Feb. 17 in a lecture sponsored by The Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley.
Between 1980 and 1994, Goldstone worked on the Transvaal Supreme Court and then the Appellate Division Supreme Court of South Africa. Professor Pradeep Chhibber, director of The Institute of International Studies, described Goldstone as “one of the liberal judges who issued key rulings that undermined the apartheid (in South Africa).”
In the 1980s, the apartheid “government could afford to appoint a few of us” said Goldstone, referencing liberal judges, “because 90% of the judges were fully supportive of apartheid.”
After the general election in 1994, Goldstone became a member of the Supreme Court of South Africa. He also headed the Goldstone Commission, which examined the political violence that took place in South Africa prior to the election in 1994, which marked the end of the apartheid.
From 1994 to 1996, Goldstone worked for the United Nations and served as the chief prosecutor for the International Tribunal for Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Goldstone incurred controversy in 2009 after the publication of a report on the war in Gaza as a result of the fact-finding mission he headed for the United Nations.
In response to a question about the political situation in Egypt, Goldstone stressed the differences between Egypt today and South Africa at the end of apartheid. “I think one must be careful comparing” the situations, said Goldstone.
Nevertheless, he cited several lessons from his experiences in South Africa that could be helpful in dealing with the current political changes.
“One lesson to learn from South Africa is that in the depths of despair, hope should never die,” said Goldstone. Up until end of the apartheid government, “for anyone in South Africa, black or white, the prospects of a nonviolent end seemed out of the question.”
The second lesson that he takes from South Africa “is the importance of leadership. In Egypt, we have seen that it is bottom up not top down,” said Goldstone, referring to the style of leadership during Egypt’s uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.
Goldstone commended Egyptians for overthrowing the government and doing it “peacefully, with a tremendous amount of dignity.”
“Now,” said Goldstone, “they need the leadership they deserve.”
Looking to Egypt’s and similar countries’ situations, he cautioned that the right to vote is not sufficient for creating a democratic country. “Hitler [and] Mugabe“ were both elected democratically with catastrophic results. Instead, “what democracy needs is a culture of democracy and respect,” said Goldstone. He sees that “South Africa is moving along that path” and he hopes that this culture of democracy will also arise in the new governments in Africa and the Middle East.
Goldstone replied to the Legend’s question about how such a culture could be created: “I would suggest the first strategy to create or enhance a culture of democracy in Egypt is to consult all the people of the country with regard to the provisions of a new constitution and especially a bill of rights,” Goldstone said. “The population should be given ownership of the process.”
He also saw the media as playing a crucial role along with “longer-term education policies.”
As for the role of the international community, it “should encourage Egypt to manage the transition itself and not to dictate the terms of that transition. The appropriate role of the international community is to offer all possible assistance if it is requested.”
If Gaza is any guide, the way forward will not be easy. While Goldstone’s report sought to “establish facts on which proper investigations” could begin, the Israeli investigation took place “all behind closed doors” and the other side — Hamas “did not respond at all.”
Critics remain. At the UC Berkeley speech, an unidentified group handed out fliers with five questions that supposedly revealed Goldstone’s alleged hypocrisy. The question at the bottom of the page read “Wouldn’t you like to know how a judge from apartheid South Africa is now an “expert” on International Law and Human Rights?“ Goldstone did not have an opportunity to answer this question.