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The reluctant Hegemon – SA’s third United Nations Security Council Seat


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Once again the country takes up a seat at the august international body. Our third term could be used more profitably than our first two by avoiding previous pitfalls.

If ever one wondered which of the African countries should take up a permanent Security Council seat in a reconfigured UN system, the answer is staring us all right in the face. It is quite impressive that South Africa got the requisite votes (183 from 193) to serve another two-year term on the prestigious United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

In less than a decade the SADC region and the African Union (AU) has three times given Mzansi the thumbs up to represent the continent on the global peace and security body.

Given the colourful history South Africa has come to be known for over the years during the previous two stints, one has to wonder whether this time around, our representatives will avoid the International geo-strategic pitfalls lying ahead.

A cursory look back to the 2007/08 term, tells us that SA wanted to remind in particular the five permanent members on the council that the abuse of the system by themselves for narrow national security interest reasons will have to come to an end. They possess the veto power on any matter brought before the council, in other words they can individually overturn or put a stop to a resolution even if all the other members have reached agreement.

Because the SA government divides its global governance agenda into three distinct categories, it will often find that it cannot always agree with some of these veto votes. The first category is the political, which concerns itself with the notion of global multilateral institutional reform, including the UN. The second category is the socio-economic, where SA is focused on the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the promotion of a reform agenda in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Bretton Woods institutions. The third concerns SA’s involvement in security issues, with reference to fighting terrorism and transnational organised crime, promoting disarmament and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and playing a catalytic and supportive role in promoting global peace, especially in complex conflicts such as those in Africa and the Middle East.

Having said that, the first tenure was not without its controversy. South Africa voted in no less than four resolutions and in all of them, they voted against the resolutions. In other words, SA did not support the resolution as it stands. These were Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Rape as a weapon in War and Iran.

Briefly, in the case of Myanmar, some permanent members wanted sanctions and certain interventions to be supported because of the gross human rights violations perpetuated against the people of Myanmar by their military junta. SA did not support this resolution not because it endorsed such behaviour but because once it liaised and consulted with the neighbors around Myanmar, SA was satisfied that though there was gross human rights abuses, it did not pose an international threat nor did it adversely affected the said region.

As such, this remain a human rights matter and should be referred to the Human Rights Body of the UN instead of the Security Council, which according to its charter should concern itself with threats that pose an international risk or have destabilising effects on the concerned region. Neither applied in this case according to the South Africans. On the Zimbabwe matter, I’m sure we all know the details of this situation. Here, the UK and the US in particular wanted to get endorsement for military action against the Mugabe regime and again SA felt that this was not necessary since the dire situation in Zimbabwe did not warrant such drastic action. Notwithstanding the concomitant effects of such military action in the SADC region. SA decided that it would vote against the regime change strategy so pervasive at the time. Next was ‘Rape as a weapon in War’ which was a resolution sponsored at the time by the US. It basically wanted the resolution to say that wherever military servicemen find themselves in any part of the world, committing rape in war time, that such an act must be considered a criminal offence and prosecutable by international law. The reason why SA voted against this resolution was because at the time of tabling it, the US did not want its own military to be subjected to it. In other words, the US wanted the resolution to apply to everyone else but not to its own military servicemen, and SA said no.

Finally, on the Iran matter, at the time SA was arguing that any country has the right to peaceful nuclear technology and that Iran even though it was a major oil producing country, had the right to explore nuclear technology for peaceful and civilian use. Some of the other members did not share SA’s opinion on the matter. These votes at the time were seen as very controversial and in some way suggested policy uncertainty on the part of South Africa.

Come 2011/12 with our second tenure and we see another major faux pas on the part of South Africa. This time it was around resolution 1973. Now just to put matters in context as to why SA voted with the US, UK and France in favour of the resolution. In the country, we had just come out of a general election and with a new president (Jacob Zuma), certain changes were bound to occur. One such change was that most of the United Nations permanent staff had to return home since most of them had been appointed by his predecessor and hence could not be trusted in New York. The problem with this was that within a split second you ripped the entire institutional memory out of the UN delegation. With rookies at the helm still trying to wrap their heads around the inner workings of the UN system, no wonder they voted in favour of resolution 1973 which was to authorise a “no fly zone” over Libya.

Now, anyone worth his or her salt at the United Nations, know that this is simply a precursor to a preemptive strike and in some instances full blown war. Which is exactly what happened in Libya, to the extent that the then leader of that country was murdered in the streets of Tripoli and to this day chaos and conflict remain. And to top it all off, modern day slavery has become the order of the day, thanks to those including South Africa, who voted in favour of resolution 1973.

Let us hope that a similar error in judgment will not occur again on our watch now that we are back in a non-permanent seat.

We have been afforded a voice in the premier International Security and Peace body on the globe and it will stand us in good stead if we act responsibly and with measured determination.

When looking ahead, difficult issues are bound to come before the Security Council in the next two years. The era of US President Donald Trump and his wayward administration is going to present the council with numerous difficult choices. The unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has ramifications written all over it.

The European Union members and the US are at loggerheads and both sides are going to want to rely on non-permanent members’ support in these matters and SA will be no exception. To go to war with Iran or not might be a choice sooner rather than later, I’m afraid. Coupled with this matter is the solidarity expressed by SA towards the Palestinian people and the struggle of the Palestinian Authority.

SA has on many occasions expressed that the situation in Palestine is akin to apartheid South Africa and that international solidarity and support must be galvanized in support of the Palestinians against Israel. This is in direct opposition to the US which sees Israel as a strategic ally in the region and has vowed to defend and protect it at all costs. The unresolved matter of Syria still looms large on the international calendar and requires decisive action going forward to rebuild that country. There is also the BRICS dilemma and the fact that the Western powers are wanting to realign allies throughout the world against such an axes. The challenge by the BRICS countries towards the so called inherent hegemony of the West is seen by some as a very dangerous thing and something that must be quelled with immediate effect. And so South Africa will find itself in a situation where it is going to be forced to align itself with one or the other group.

Interesting times ahead indeed for South Africa. And as Peter Parker’s grandfather once remarked to the little hidden superhero, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Let’s us hope, that our representatives in New York will not only make us proud over the next two years but also use this opportunity to demonstrate to all why South Africa deserves to be at that table on a permanent basis in the future. DM


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