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South Africa Returns to the UN Security Council


Publishing Date: 10/3/2018 8:00 AM

Written by Prof Adekeye Adebajo

South Africa was recently elected to a two-year non-permanent seat on the powerful 15-member United Nations (UN) Security Council – starting in January 2019 - for the third time in a decade, with an overwhelming 183 votes of the 193-member UN General Assembly. Tshwane served on the Security Council between 2007 and 2008, and between 2011 and 2012. On both occasions, it pushed for the reform of the anachronistic Security Council, and the expansion of its five veto-wielding permanent members beyond the United States (US), Russia, China, France, and Britain. The five permanent members (P-5) have decades of experience at manipulating the arcane rules of the UN's most powerful body, and draft almost all of its resolutions.

During its two tenures on the Council, South Africa pushed forcefully for the strengthening of security cooperation between the UN and logistically and financially weak African regional bodies such as the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Tshwane also prioritised this theme during its three presidencies of the Security Council in March 2007, April 2008, and January 2012. South Africa further argued for meetings between the UN Security Council and the AU's 15-member Peace and Security Council, which now occur annually.

But Tshwane also became embroiled, during both terms on the Council, in controversial decisions. While serving on the body in 2007–2008, South Africa engaged in human rights-related spats with Western powers over Iran and Myanmar. Instead, the country could simply have hidden behind Chinese and Russian vetoes, and focused on more strategic issues for Africa. During South Africa's second stint on the Council in 2011–2012, the main controversies focused around Libya (where Tshwane was accused of enabling the NATO "regime change" agenda), and Côte d'Ivoire (where South Africa was diplomatically isolated after backing incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, over presidential victor, Alassane Ouattara).

Currently, about 84% of the UN's 91,699 peacekeepers are deployed in Africa. 93% of South Africa's 1,260 soldiers are deployed in the Congo, while others are based in Darfur (53) and South Sudan (12).These three theatres – particularly the Congo - should thus be a major focus of South Africa's efforts in its forthcoming two-year tenure on the Council.

South Africa should pursue five key goals on the Council. First, it must craft strategic alliances to pursue important priorities with the other two African Council members (Côte d'Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea); BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) partners, China and Russia (and where possible the US, France, and Britain); and other non-permanent members: Germany, Belgium, Poland, Indonesia, Peru, Kuwait, and the Dominican Republic.

Second, since in 11 out of 12 Africa-related Security Council cases, resolutions are drafted by Washington, London and Paris;  Tshwane must seek to draft  (and not just co-draft) more of these resolutions, and also chair – along with other influential non-permanent members such as Germany and Indonesia - Council committees and working groups often dominated by the P-5.

Third, communication between the AU Commission in Addis Ababa, Africa's subregional bodies, and the AU office in New York must be urgently improved to ensure that strong African perspectives from closer to the scene of conflicts reach the Council. The decisions of Africa's regional bodies must be taken into account and communicated timeously to the rest of the Council by the three African members in New York.

Fourth, coordination between South Africa and the other two African Council members - Côte d'Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea - must also be enhanced, as well as effective reporting by them to the Africa Group at the UN. These measures would hopefully help avoid some of the miscommunication that occurred between the AU Peace and Security Council and the three African Council members – South Africa, Nigeria, and Gabon – during the Libyan debacle of 2011. 

A fifth and final priority is for South Africa to push for the long-delayed African Standby Force to be established as a way of deploying peacekeepers quicker to African conflict theatres mandated by the Security Council, under a UN flag. These missions should be paid for by the world body's assessed contributions, as proposed by the Romano Prodi report on AU/UN Peacekeeping Cooperation published a decade ago, but never implemented.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in the Business Day (South Africa), 1 October 2018.