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Careful what you wish for — misplaced notion behind SA’s bold demand for UN reform

Careful what you wish for — misplaced notion behind SA’s bold demand for UN reform
South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor delivers a speech at the opening of the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. 28 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Fabrice Coffrini / Pool)

While it is encouraging that South Africa embraces ‘democratisation’, there is some irony in the impulse to allow undemocratic countries to outvote democratic ones in the name of democracy.

South Africa bangs on at virtually any available opportunity about the need for reform of the United Nations and its institutions, especially the Security Council.

It is a popular cause and one which is championed by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres himself, albeit through rhetoric so vague it is of little value. Here is an example: “With the structural aspects of the reforms now well consolidated, it is imperative to keep the foot on the pedal to achieve the cultural change we need for greater collaboration across pillars and tangible results for people on the ground.”

Among those who routinely support calls for the urgent reform of the UN is International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor: “As part of building a better Africa and world, we are continuing with this important work. South Africa, in keeping with the Ezulwini Consensus, fully supports calls for the democratisation of the United Nations Security Council as the premier body responsible for maintaining international peace and security,” said the minister in April in presenting the ANC’s foreign policy manifesto.

While it is encouraging that South Africa embraces “democratisation”, there is some irony in the impulse to allow undemocratic countries to outvote democratic ones in the name of democracy.

The Ezulwini Consensus (so named after a valley in Eswatini, an interesting venue for a discussion on global democratisation) was a position on a more representative UN adopted by the African Union in March 2005. This consensus was followed by the Sirte Declaration (in Ghaddafi’s Libya, another democratic stand-out) three months later, which reiterated the need for at least two permanent seats and five non-permanent Security Council seats for African states.

Pandor has since said that the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict has presented an opportunity to reform the UN, not least in making it more representative, but also to protect the innocent from harm in conflicts. At an Eid event in Brixton in April, in criticising the Israeli incursions into Gaza as “arrogant breaches of international law”, Pandor said that the crisis presented an opportunity to reform the UN.

“But we have a fundamental flaw in the Security Council — the permanent five who decide what goes and what doesn’t. That has to be changed,” she said. “We also have a flaw in that despite the mandate for peace and security, when the people of Palestine were suffering the onslaught and continue to suffer it, we had no enforcement capability in the UN,” she added.

“As we discuss concrete reform, we must insist that there must be not just peace monitoring but peace enforcement capacity in the UN.” Pandor said the case for global reform has been strengthened by the additional membership of the BRICS.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Enduring ‘West versus the rest’ dynamic empowering rapid rise and resistance of global south

The South African position clearly reflects an agenda driven by its friends in BRICS (now including Iran) and the goal appears to be simple: reform the UN, diminish the power of the US and other (especially Western) vetoes, and improve, supposedly, the power of others of uncertain democratic lineage in deciding their own fate.

But this is a disingenuous tactic, and not a little simplistic. It makes it seem as if the world outside of the Permanent Five in the Security Council is powerless, which it is not. It also makes it seem as if the P5, which includes Russia and China, is the stumbling block to UN reform, which it might be, but less so than the pretenders themselves.

It avoids the reality of UN operations. To pass a UN Security Council Resolution, nine affirmative votes are required, and no vetoes. China and Russia will not vote against the A3 (three African members). And the A3 should surely get at least two more supporters from the E10 (elected 10) — countries like Brazil and Vietnam will vote with the Africans.

So the A3 can deny the nine affirmative votes if they work together and lobby the others. While UNSC reform is undoubtedly desirable, the A3 already has what is in practice an effective veto, including (indeed, especially) on African issues.

The problem is different. Africans should start acting as though they have the power to block anything — and use that for leverage to create positive momentum. They will also have to learn not to continue to use that power to block any Security Council scrutiny of human rights violations and conflicts in Africa — including in Eswatini, or BRICS members such as Ethiopia — but instead develop a positive agenda.

A great redeeming feature of democracies, for all their faults, is their ability to criticise everyone, including other democracies. That seldom if ever happens between authoritarians.

Africa already possesses agency, then, but prefers to play the victim card.

It makes sense for Africa to have a voice in UN affairs, if only because historically more than half of all Security Council meetings and nearly three-quarters of its resolutions are concerned with the continent. But this means playing the game according to the rules that one develops.

While Africa, or at least the bit represented by South Africa, likes to fight against the current rules-based international order, it is difficult to get the South African government (or anyone else for that matter) to tell you what alternative rules they might like, and who is going to pay for these ideals.

Moreover, the Ezulwini Consensus — the two permanent seats with veto for Africa — would effectively ensure that other regions ask for the same, and that reform never happened since the result would be a Security Council with 10 or more veto-wielding members, which would ensure irrelevance. Be careful what you wish for — but only if reform is in fact the aim.

Meanwhile, nobody apparently stops to think that the relative growth and peace of the “Global South” over the last 30 years has no precedent. This generation has seen, driven by Asia, the largest upliftment out of poverty in human history.

Why this has not happened in much of Africa has very little to do with the UN, or remarkably, is even about Israel for that matter. DM

Ray Hartley and Greg Mills are with the Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Hypocrisy and accountability do not mix.

  • Ben Harper says:

    An joke indeed, one just needs to look at the farcical AU to see how ludicrous this is

  • Denise Smit says:

    Pandor and Iran on the go

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Ignore her at your peril, this woman has got far more insight than she is credited for.
      The UN has been weakened by the European bias to inaction it will self implode, looking at the quality of senior leaders resigning from frustration it will be in the very near future.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Social media has killed, not only democracy, but also intelligent debate, and in the process of “social media dumbing down” we have lost all pretence of civility and civilisation.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    The fact that the ANC fought so hard for democracy is the real irony. They never wanted democracy to begin with. It was just a vessel on which to sail to achieve power. Now we have democracy, they spit in its face and run to the defense of as many nations as possible that oppose democracy, whilst actively campaigning against those who embrace it. There are no polite terms to describe this ANC organization. I find it insulting when every decision this horrid bunch makes is seen as South African. They embarrass our country and defecate on our flag.

  • JDW 2023 says:

    I really used to have respect for Pandow WRT her (past) ability to make restrained utterances soberly. But her candor as minister of international relations has been a joke and has not been a good look for SA. Hypocrisy abounds when one does a review of the ANC and she is just amplifying that.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    It is typical for the ANC – Democracy is good when you have the majority, and if you don not have it, legislate, change rules, change the system, etc to get your way.

    So Africa (with very few true democracies) want to enforce democracy together with BRICS and other autocrats?

    It is absolutely true that the Asian part of the Global SOuth have done very well in economic growth – including China and India, where Africa still blames Adam and Eve, slave traders, colonial power and Jan van Riebeeck. The Indians just shrug their shoulders.

    Whatever Pandor stands for, it is wise to stand for the opposite.

  • Kealeboga Letsholonyane says:

    The UN itself should be the epitome of democracy and set the tone for the rest f the world. The notion that undemocratic nations should not vote is totally wrong no matter the reason given for it.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    It still never happen. And if it did imagine the decisions! At that point America will pull out, together with it’s funding leaving the UN high and dry

  • Noel Soyizwaphi says:

    I hope Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are not proposing “seperate development in the UNSC” That was meant for South Africa under apartheid and the majority of the citizens rejected it. A point that need to be understood even by the two authors is that Africa is represented on the UNSC by the so-called A3 – a block of three elected African states on UNSC, these countries have no big say since none has veto power as opposed to the other five states with permanent membership.

    Here is what Greg Mills & Ray Hartley seem to be suggesting the world, in particular the Global south, must accept: the 3 permanent African seats with veto only on matters that relate to Africa — should be emulated by other regions of the Global south effectively ensure that each region seek mandate from within and and only concern itself with matters of that region while while counties have the power to veto on matters affecting the globe”. Democracy in the council will mean that actions of UNSC are based on the thinking of the majority of the countries in it snd not based on interests of a single country or just western interests.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Thank God for the Security Council and its veto powers. When the UN was formed after the Second World War the founders obviously predicted what would happen to the World’s so called democracies and built in that safety mechanism. Can you just imagine the state we would be in if the likes of Pandor and her buddies in Iran and North Korea had their wicked way.

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