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Morocco outmanoeuvres SA at UNHRC to snatch presidency — a potential warning for Pretoria

Morocco outmanoeuvres SA at UNHRC to snatch presidency — a potential warning for Pretoria
Morocco's Ambassador Omar Zniber. (Photo: United Nations Human Rights Council)

SA’s heavy defeat in the vote for the United Nations Human Rights Council presidency suggests its foreign policy postures are costing it support.

No one in South Africa was more delighted than International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor when the national soccer team Bafana Bafana beat Morocco this week to reach the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals. “Bafana did us the job of returning the favour by 2-nil,” Pandor beamed at a press conference on 31 January.

The ironic ‘favour’ returned was Moroccan Ambassador Omar Zniber’s unexpected defeat of South African Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi – by 30 votes to 17 – in the 10 January elections for the 2024 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) presidency. Morocco clearly outmanoeuvred South Africa, bypassing the customary procedures.

It was Africa’s turn to nominate a country for the presidency, which rotates among the world’s five regions. The African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva typically selects the candidate, making the council vote a formality. The African ambassadors nominated South Africa.

But Morocco managed to insert itself as a second African candidate, undermining the consensus and forcing the 47-member council to vote, said diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa. Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, confirmed with ISS Today that this was what happened.

That Morocco gunned for South Africa was no surprise. The two are bitter enemies, mostly because Pretoria has championed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), while Rabat claims it as its province. South Africa regards this as Africa’s last decolonisation struggle, and just before the vote, Nkosi said if Zniber were elected, it would “shatter whatever shred of legitimacy this Council ever had”.

But why did South Africa lose the wider vote (and so badly)? Africa Confidential attributed it to several factors: Pretoria’s strong pro-SADR stance; its ‘non-aligned’ (some would say pro-Moscow) position on Russia’s war against Ukraine; its pro-LGBTQ policies; and most recently, its high-profile charge of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Making waves and rifts

Scanning the 47 council members, one could see how Pretoria’s positions on Western Sahara and Ukraine, and its activism on Israel, could have cost it support among some African, and perhaps all Western, members. Its Russia-Ukraine posture probably would have also cost it the votes of Eastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

In that sense, Morocco was shrewd to shift the vote from the African Group to the wider Council — a more favourable arena for Rabat. Of the possible contributing factors to South Africa’s loss, the ICJ-Israel case is perhaps the most interesting.

The ICJ hearing in The Hague was to begin just a day after the Geneva vote, and South Africa’s detailed application had been public since 29 December. No Western nations had expressed support for the move, and the US, a UNHRC member, called it “meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact”.

The role each of these factors played is hard to say, since the ballot was secret. But if the ICJ case was among them, South Africa’s 2024 UNHRC presidency would be the first international casualty of its genocide charges against Israel. Others might follow, including threats to its trade preferences in the US.

Morocco’s victory was largely symbolic, African Union (AU) observers told ISS Today. The UNHRC isn’t a very powerful body, struggling to achieve legitimacy and credibility as it votes pretty much according to national rather than purely moral positions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ICJ ruling in SA’s genocide case against Israel lauded as ‘historic’ and victory for human rights

Nevertheless, to head any UN body is prestigious, and Morocco probably intends to use it to deflect criticism of its Western Sahara occupation and allegations that it’s committing human rights abuses against the territory’s inhabitants. In that sense, beating South Africa was a double victory for Morocco — winning not only the position, but also denying it to perhaps its greatest African rival.

Naledi Pandor

Minister Naledi Pandor. (Photo: Katlholo Maifadi/Dirco)

Morocco and Israel in cahoots?

Africa Confidential also suggested Morocco had worked with Israel to defeat South Africa in the presidency poll. It cited Morocco’s “de facto alliance with Israel under the Abraham Accord. Rabat recognised Israel in 2021 in a three-cornered pact in which the United States recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara”.

Uniting against South Africa would make sense for Morocco and Israel, from a tactical perspective. South Africa has lumped Israel and Morocco in the same basket, as when Pandor last year described how she campaigned to prevent Israel from being recognised as an AU observer. She said Israel and Morocco were both “oppressors” and “colonial occupiers … playing a very negative role in Africa” by using their “financial muscle” to win the support of African countries.

An AU expert who requested anonymity was sceptical that Israel and Morocco were in cahoots, suggesting that no Muslim state could afford to be seen backing Israel in light of the devastation it’s wreaking in Gaza. But Morocco wouldn’t of course, go public with any deal it might have cut with Israel.

Morocco’s controversial return to the AU in 2017, bitterly opposed by South Africa, continues to be disruptive across Africa, mainly because of its deep enmity with its neighbour Algeria, a strong South Africa ally, also largely over Western Sahara. “It is in fact paralysing the continent,” one AU observer said.

For instance, less than three weeks before the AU’s 2024 ordinary summit, North Africa hasn’t nominated a candidate to chair the continental body this year. It is the region’s turn to take the position, but officials in Addis Ababa say North Africa is still “consulting”.

The AU expert said Egypt would like the chair, as that would enable it to exert influence in the Sudan crisis and other issues. But it last chaired in 2019 — it wouldn’t look good to chair again so soon. The other option was Mauritania, “but it is a very weak state,” the expert said.

The concerns of Algeria, and its supporters on this issue, like South Africa, are that if Morocco were elected AU chair, it would use the position to advance its claim to Western Sahara. That would include sidelining or expelling the Polisario-led SADR, which claims to represent the territory as an independent state.

For South Africa, even though it has won widespread international acclaim for its ICJ application, the question is whether its resounding UNHRC defeat was a warning that its foreign postures will cost it Western, and perhaps broader, support. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Today.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    First off, SA has NOT won “widespread” acclaim for its public loss at the ICC, this is biased journalism.

    To be accurate, SA’s failed case has a very divided response with some countries for and some against.

    What IS accurate to say, however, is that there are no countries which are both an existing trade partner and/or investment partner and also a vehement supporter of this failed court action.. so again even though the action failed, it still scored a fairly massive own goal in terms of our foreign relations.

    In terms of the UNHRC, Pandor must have his head in the sand if he honestly thinks that there is a single remotely education or intelligent person in the Civilised world who things that the ANC’s SA has ANY right to comment on human rights.

    Again Pandor, dude… you and the rest of the ANC gangsters need to learn to treat your own people like people before attempting to tell the rest of the world how to live.

    The actual gall of any of these ANC criminals engaging in any process of “justice” is beyond laughable.

    “Human Rights?”… when I think about what the ANC has done, and predominantly to its own supporter base.. it is beyond laughable to try and apply to even be a part of the UNHRC, it is cruel pageantry.

    • Greeff Kotzé says:

      Why are you misgendering Naledi Pandor? Surely, if you are as knowledgeable about South Africa’s foreign policy as you claim, you would know that the Minister of International Relations is female?

      (I sincerely hope to see no disgusting comments in response to this — from anyone. Governance and politics is not a beauty pageant, and rightly so.)

      Also, opinion pieces are not journalism, strictly speaking, and have implicit bias.

    • Jan Stals says:

      While I may or may not agree with what you have said, it would be better if your facts are correct.
      1. The case was heard by the ICJ, not the ICC
      2. Naledi Pandor is a woman.
      Getting basics like this wrong is why it would be difficult for people to take your comments seriously.

      • Matthew Quinton says:

        It’s 2024, I choose to identify him as a him. This was by design.

        ICC, ICJ, ICU, KFC whatever.

        “Governance and politics is not a beauty pageant, and rightly so”

        True, butt optics are optics.

        • kuli china says:

          Daily maverick is neither news24 nor timeslive, here we expect comments to be civil, informed amd well thought out.

          • Devan Pillay says:

            Precisely. I thought DM comments were moderated. How did this ill-informed comment from Quinton pass through….?🤔

          • andrew farrer says:

            because, unfortunately, when you moderate a comment, you have no idea of the context. Maybe DM should reference the article to which the comment is being made?

        • Dee Bee says:

          Maybe you should try to at least get the basics right. Simply dismissing factual corrections is pretty puerile.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      Oh but you are mistaken, Matthew – South Africa has been largely successful in its charges against Israel, and got far more international support than you may think. Even France, Germany, the UK and I think Italy gave recognition to what we did. And many other countries have supported us on our position. Which is more, the ICJ did say that the charge of genocide is a plausible one, which should be a warning not only to the Netanyahu government, but also to all its’ allies. I also see that the USA has taken this cue and is starting to change its’ position subtly. Not that I think that SA’s position was not flawed; I firstly think that it should not have been “Israel”, but the Netanyahu government that should have been charged, and then Hamas should have been charged alongside because both sides are equally guilty of this mess.

      • Devan Pillay says:

        Hamas is not a state, so cannot be brought before the ICJ. SA however did make a point of criticising their actions on 7 October.

        Only states, not individual administrations, can be charged.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          “SA however did make a point of criticising their actions on 7 October.”

          Yes, and then hosted them for a chummy and official chinwag immediately after.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      I agree with you that the ANC has to an extent failed in being a human rights champion, given what it has done in SA and also how it has eroded our democratic principles as stated in the Constitution. And to ask whether the SA government should not rather give more attention to its’ own domestic issues is perfectly correct. But you are wrong in your opinion that SA has had no support for its’ position on Israel-Palestine, and you are also wrong in calling our case in the ICJ “failed”. In fact, the court found that the accusation of genocide against Israel is plausible and it is being investigated further. And qualified support has come from an assortment of countries, including France, Germany and also some other European countries; and if I am not mistaken, most of the African countries are also sympathetic towards SA’s position. And now that the ICJ has made some findings on Israel, even the USA is clearly rethinking its’ position. It should be kept in mind that SA’s case was not that Israel does not have the right to defend itself. It is HOW it is defending itself that is in the cross-hairs, because 90% of those that they kill are innocent by-standers; in view of that, the argument of collateral damage and “killed in the crossfire” loses all its’ credibility, no matter how much Israel and all its’ supporters are bandying it around. Besides, there is evidence of Israeli soldiers shooting innocent, unarmed civilians that, in an attempt to avoid, carry white flags.

    • Vic Mash says:

      I hope you dont reproduce, we have enough of you already, Ben Haper

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    PS… in that picture… is that finger about to go for a serious round of nose-diving?

  • L T. says:

    This is an interesting article. I am now better informed about SA’s standing in other parts of Africa and the AU. I also did not know that Morocco and SA were bitter enemies. I’m not sorry that SA with its own dismal human rights record lost the UNHRC presidency – imagine them smirking big time if they had been successful!! Outplayed well and truly by Morocco who are not exactly a global player. But I also have no faith whatsoever in any UN organisation to be fair and unbiased.

    • kuli china says:

      ANC government got a lot of things wrong but human rights abuses or violations is not one of them.

      • Ben Harper says:


      • Dee Bee says:

        I’m sorry, Kuli, but the ANC is absolutely selective and hypocritical on human rights – Putin’s butchering of civilians in Ukraine goes unanswered; Uganda’s draconian LGBT crackdown is a ‘domestic issue’; the barbarity of the Taliban in oppressing women in Afghanistan doesn’t even get a mention – I could go on, but suffice is to say that the ANC is absolutely selective about the ‘human rights’ issues it picks up on.

        And what about the human rights of the 500k people in the Eastern Cape who are starving whilst the blue light brigades fly past? Or the pensioners in penury because of the VBS scum (largely ANC) who plundered that bank? Or Jacob Zuma? Enough said on that one! The ANC has the morality of an alley cat, finding itself on the right side of history by mistake, not design.

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        Seriously? What would you describe Marikana as if not a ‘human rights violation’ for which noone has done jail time? What is it called when a 6 year old drowns in a pit toilet at his school while the money that could be used to build a real one is spent on a new X5 for the minister responsible. What would you describe our murder rate that averages 70 a day for a couple of decades as?

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    There are a few aspects where I don’t agree with you, Peter. Firstly, the revolving chairs of international bodies like the AU are designed like that specifically to ensure that the chair is merely a facilitator and not a strong body who dominates. This then removes any reason not to nominate a state like Mauritius. Secondly, I am not so sure that South Africa’s positions on Ukraine and Israel-Palestine would necessarily affect its’ popularity. After all it took a surprisingly strong stance against the blocking of grain exports by Russia; and most of the African countries are actually more on the Palestinian side than on that of Israel. No, I think it is because SA is getting weaker and weaker in its’ traditional leadership role in Africa, and most African countries are starting to make its’ own minds up in a pragmatic way, leaving the African nationalist sentiments and solutions behind as outdated. In this SA is far behind the times, because the ANC is still clinging to nationalist sentiments to a large extent. And I am sure that Ramaphosa wants this to change, but the ANC is still effective in one aspect, and that is to cling to these nationalist sentiments. So our country is losing influence on the African continent because we are not an example of good governance INSIDE SOUTH AFRICA. That is how I see it.

    • Dee Bee says:

      Think you’re largely right – so many other governing Africa have a mature and balanced outlook that puts their own countries interests first, rather than the pathetic 1950s ideologues we’re saddled with.

  • Dov de Jong says:

    Pandor and Dirco do not care about South Africa’s national interest, and the chickens will come home to roost. The the Hague theatrics, with their little Hamas scarves draped around their necks, shows a bunch of publicity randy politicians with no care for their country, nor a conception of reality.

  • kuli china says:

    “Morocco worked with Israel to win” says a lot about Morocco. SA shouldn’t even be bothered by the loss it is a coalition of human rights abusers. The one lest ICJ with a bloodiest nose and the other, well Let’s ask them about Western Sahara.

  • William Dryden says:

    Well put Matthew and your reference to Pandor being a man was obviously due to her appearance, but as other commentors said it’s not a beauty pageant, so you do not have to be beautiful to be stupid.

    • Dee Bee says:

      Pretty pathetic – I’ve not seen male politicians judged on their physical appearance in the same way, so why Pandor? I don’t like her mindless grandstanding, but what has her appearance got to do with that one way or another? It’s cheap misogyny and had no place in mature debate.

      • Julian Chandler says:

        Did you miss all the jabs at the orange former US president, with his squirrel wig?

        • Dee Bee says:

          That’s true, but then he went out of his way to be orange, not sure about the wig. I’d argue as well that his vanity largely brought that on himself, whilst Pandor hasn’t tried to change her image cosmetically. It’s still probably wrong to take digs at Trump’s appearance, however repugnant his politics. There is also a whole range of issues around male power and entitlement, misogyny, body shaming and the like lumped under toxic masculinity that don’t seem to worry the likes of Matthew and those sniggering with him on the sidelines.

          • Vic Mash says:

            well put.

          • Middle aged Mike says:

            Dee Bee, you lost me at ‘That’s true, but . . . ‘. Your explanation leaves me confused as to when I can make fun of a buffoon. Is it safe to assume that if they are rich, white, male and straight that I can have at it?

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Tut tut Julian. It isn’t hypocrisy if it’s aimed at someone with whom you violently disagree.

  • No surprise here.
    Don’t expect our local donkeys in mainstream media to even notice this diplomatic catastrophe for South Africa, let alone understand its implications.

  • A position on principle outweighs any posture that placates other groups. Morocco doesn’t regard itself as African since it applied for recognition as a European country. Those who voted for Morocco show how spineless they are. We need more leaders in the order of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso for Africa to get respect among nations of the world. South Africa is by no means a puppet and for that we shall endure whatever comes our way.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Pandor, so biased, useless and hypocritical as Cyril the spineless accusing Morocco and Israel of “being oppressors and occupiers” is pathetic and sickening. This individual is too dimwitted to realise that every time she opens her loud mouth, she makes a fool of herself. SA under the revolting anc may not be an oppressor at home, as some have commented, BUT the reality is that we support and close ranks with the most evil, brutal and bestial mass-murderers and human rights abusers around. Russia, Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Hamas, Cuba etc. The disgusting anc is close bedfellows with this evil and vicious cabal of deranged murderers and in my book, we are no different. Birds of a feather. We select whom we condemn and turn a blind eye when inconvenient. I say – WELL DONE MOROCCO👏🤛

    • Vic Mash says:

      South Africa was worse under the apartheid regime, where Africans were regarded as sub-human and colonisers as first class citizens. Morocco regards itself as a European country than an African one

      • Enver Klein says:

        Israel has Morocco to thank for its victory over its Arab enemies in the 1967 Six Day War. In 1965, King Hassan passed recordings to Israel of a key meeting between Arab leaders held to discuss whether they were prepared for a war against Israel.
        Also, Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco formally established diplomatic relations in 2020, when both sides signed the Israel–Morocco normalization agreement in light of the Abraham Accords

        • William Stucke says:

          Ah. The USA agreed to recognise Morocco’s spurious claims to the Western Sahara, in exchange for Morocco’s agreement to recognize Israel’s claim to existence. In return Morocco recognised Israel a few months later.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          The ineptitude of the combined Arab armies who had an overwhelming advantage in manpower and equipment played a small part too. Israel has developed something of a habit of rag dolling their wildly overconfident arab adversaries in the region.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Nonsense! You probably couldn’t even find Morocco on a map

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        ‘worse under the apartheid regime’ is quite a low bar to set don’t you think? Surely it should be all but impossible for the democratically elected government of SA to be remotely comparable?

  • Vic Mash says:

    Peter you are so desperate is shows. South Africa did take apartheid israel to ICJ and nothing you say will change that. If this country is hit by an earth quake tomorrow, im sure, you will put this on SA taking apartheid israel to ICJ, just relax and enjoy life Peter and drink cold beer once.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Too busy feathering their collective nests and getting high on their own supply to do the jobs we pay them so handsomely for. Kleptoclowns cosplaying as a government.

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