South Africa rejoins the United Nations Security Council in January as a non-permanent member for two-year term. Pretoria will be in the good company of Nigeria, India and Brazil, Germany, Portugal and Colombia as well as the current permanent five: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.
Issaka K. Souaré of the African Conflict Prevention Programme of the Institute for Security Studies notes in an analysis this “means that 2011 will make the Security Council host to most of the powerful of great powers and strongest of emerging ones in the world. With Nigeria until the end of 2011, it will also be the first time these two African “giants” sit together on the Council.”
But what does all this mean for South Africa, in particular, and Africa as a whole?
Perhaps the best starting point for this analysis is to look back at the country’s record during its first term, he argues. “In this regard, it would appear that some observers reduce South Africa’s performance in this period to two issues: its opposition to a Council resolution on the human rights violations in Myanmar (also known as Burma), and its objection to calls for the Council to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe.
“This should be put in context to allow for proper appreciation. It is therefore worth noting that the years 2007 and 2008 were, like most other years, full of activities at the Security Council. In 2007, for example, the Council passed a total of 60 resolutions, while it voted 65 resolutions in 2008. These resolutions concerned various issues from around the world. Regarding the South African position on Myanmar, the draft resolution on that country was put to vote on 12 January 2007, less than two weeks after South Africa joined the Council. It came at a time when the UN Secretary-General had recently appointed Ibrahim Gambari as his personal envoy to engage in dialogue with the authorities in Myanmar. It would appear also that other UN organs, particularly the Economic and Social Council and the Human Rights Council, were considering the matter, given that issues raised related to human rights and socio-economic problems in the country. According to Security Council records of the meeting (S/PV.5619), South Africa joined hands with China and Russia in opposing the UK-sponsored draft resolution based on three main reasons. Those included the argument that the Human Rights Council was more appropriate to deal with it than the Security Council and that passing the resolution might undermine the good offices of Gambari.
“Perhaps it should be noted that when the same issue was considered by the General Assembly in December 2007, South Africa merely abstained from voting, while countries such as India, opposed it. South Africa did the same the following year in the company of countries like Mali, Tanzania, Zambia and even Ghana, which had supported the draft resolution in the Council the previous year.
“With regard to Zimbabwe, South Africa was directly involved in this matter. Its president, Thabo Mbeki, was engaged in mediating between the Zimbabwean parties and therefore the opposition to Security Council involvement was justified by a concern that the sanctions being proposed did not constitute a better alternative to the mediation process. That mediation process was being criticised, but ironically, the relative stability now seen in Zimbabwe is largely due to that mediation process.
“Beyond these two cases, South Africa’s first term in the Council brought many African issues to the fore of the UN agenda. One important example is the push for more UN involvement in peacekeeping operations in Africa in support of the African Union. It is true that the Security Council did not endorse the proposal, for understandable reasons, but the efforts made by Pretoria in pushing for that project are the kind of endeavours expected from a country representing the interests of a region.
“That was then: positive to some, negative or mixed to others. But what can one expect this time around? South Africa could be expected to join forces with Nigeria and Gabon to press for more African issues at the Council and to lobby for them. Perhaps it will better articulate its positions this time around. Perhaps it will benefit from the fact that Mbeki is no longer the president, for it would appear that some charged the country with their perception of its leader. Otherwise Zuma’s diplomacy is not louder than that of Mbeki on Zimbabwe but the criticism is now quiet.
“But two caveats should be added here. First, sitting in the Security Council does not necessarily mean that a country or a group of countries could force the UN to do something that the majority of its members, particularly powerful ones in the Council, do not support,” Souaré says.
“The second caveat is that while the UN is the primary responsible body for international peace and security, it may not be forced nor is it necessary for it to deal with all issues in Africa. The ongoing Somalia imbroglio is a case in point. While it will be good that the UN contribute more to the search for a solution to the problems of that country, it does not appear that Africa has exhausted all its efforts in that regard. Indeed the recent appointment of former Ghanaian leader, Jerry John Rawlings, as the personal envoy of the Chairperson of the AU Commission to Somalia might be the result of a realisation of this fact on the part of the AU Commission. With his experience and personality, Rawlings may be able to push for what most experts have been suggesting: a dual political and military process, inclusive in the former, and well defined and supported in the latter.
“It is through such an approach of complementarity, in which the UN only supplements the efforts of the AU, that African membership in the UN Security Council and the UN at large would be the most fruitful for the continent.”