South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy and a diplomatic heavyweight, has come under fire for taking a soft line on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and countries such as Sudan and Myanmar accused of widespread rights abuses.
President-elect Jacob Zuma has taken a hard line on Zimbabwe as leader of the ruling African National Congress in contrast to former President Thabo Mbeki.
Georgette Gagnon, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), urged Zuma in a letter to seize on the opportunity to help introduce democratic reforms in Zimbabwe as the new unity government tries to rebuild the ruined country.
She said Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was still carrying out abuses such as politically motivated prosecutions of opponents and had failed to investigate allegations of torture.
"With new leadership in South Africa there is great expectation for a rebalancing of policy towards South Africa using its moral, political and economic authority and leadership in southern Africa to promote respect for human rights, good governance and democracy in Zimbabwe," HRW said in the letter, released to the media.
In recent years, including a two-year stint as a U.N. Security Council member, South Africa sided with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, Gagnon wrote.
Critics say South Africa, which holds itself up as a model of democracy and human rights after decades of apartheid, has damaged its image with its foreign policy.
"Your recent election offers an opportunity to change that misguided policy and restore credibility to South Africa’s foreign policy," HRW said.
South Africa’s refusal to give Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference of Nobel laureates in March was widely condemned. Critics accused the government of caving in to pressure from China, which it denied.