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South Africa on the UN Security Council: Priorities and challenges

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South Africa on the UN Security Council: Priorities and challenges

Malte Brosig

20 Jun 2018

7min min read
  • United Nations. Security Council
  • International relations

outh Africa will join the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member for a third term in 2019-2020, having secured 183 of 193 votes in the 8 June election. It will serve alongside Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea as African members of the Council (A3).

Despite the criticism the UN receives because of its often-limited success in bringing peace and development for all, membership of the Council is still regarded as the ultimate foreign policy ‘prize’. Although non-permanent members have no veto rights and only serve for two years, they enjoy a political legitimacy the P5 do not possess as they are elected members of the world community. Furthermore, any adoption of a resolution (which is binding) requires affirmative votes by the non-permanent members too, as nine positive votes are required to pass a resolution of the 15-member council.

South Africa first served on the Council in 2007-2008 under President Thabo Mbeki, and then in 2011-2012 under President Jacob Zuma. World politics has changed significantly since then. We are witnessing an increase in polarisation and great power rivalries in world affairs. At the beginning of the millennium the discourse focused on global governance issues and formulation of Millennium Development Goals. The following decade was shaped by a debate on rising powers and the formation of the BRICS (Brazil-Russia India-China-South Africa) bloc. Today we are confronted with increasing great power rivalry and disintegration of global governance institutions. In this environment of increased polarisation and declining multilateralism what can and should be the priorities for South Africa at the UNSC?

Depolarisation should be priority number one

While initially developing countries from outside the Western world were seen as contenders to the liberal world order, this order has now come under strain from within the West itself. The British vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the United States contribute to a demise of multilateralism and global/regional governance institutions. The deliberate dismantling of the Iran nuclear deal, the unilateral abandoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the disunity shown at the recent G7 summit in Canada are visible signs of disintegration. 

Great power polarity has also returned to the Security Council, where the Syrian conflict takes centre stage. Hard battles are fought over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Western and Arab states submitted several draft resolutions to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and impose sanctions for the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia and China have vetoed any resolutions that appeared, in their eyes, to be one-sided. The fear that sanctions and criminal prosecution could prepare a regime change approach, as happened in Libya in 2011, is also often cited by the two countries as a reason not to act against al-Assad.

Since 2011 we have seen the use of the veto privilege on 12 occasions by Russia and six by China. While China was once regarded as a reluctant power that chose to abstain from voting rather than veto decisions, this has now changed. It used its veto rights 11 times since joining the Security Council in the 1970s; six of these alone were after 2011. 

Debating the Syrian issue in the Security Council has become a battlefield for great power interests to the detriment of actually solving the conflict or ameliorating the dire humanitarian crisis which has deepened over the years. 

Syria resolution 2018

A general view of the UN Security Council during the voting on a resolution over the Assad regime's usage of chemical weapons on 28 February 2017. (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Keep the Security Council unblocked

The costs and consequences of great power rivalry are most likely carried by smaller and developing countries, as they tend to rely more on global governance institutions and have limited influence on global affairs. South Africa should take a keen interest in defusing tensions before they spiral out of control. It is of utmost importance to keep the Security Council unblocked and prevent spill-over effects from the Syrian crisis into other issue areas affecting the African continent. 

The use of veto power on Africa’s many crises (the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, South Sudan, Somalia) and a general rejection of any criticism, sanctions or criminal prosecution of governments involved in war crimes and human rights violations risk thwarting the progress that has been achieved by the UN and African Union in overcoming a culture of impunity. A Security Council which predominantly protects sovereignty rights of states is hardly able to solve and engage on 21st century human security challenges. In this context, the balancing act South Africa needs to perform relates to contesting the link between power politics and those instruments used to enforce it. Both can entail either unjustified sanctions and regime change or protecting a regime from these events when there is a moral justification to do so. South Africa did not seem to manage this very well in its previous terms, often appearing to prefer regime stability over sanctions or other enforcement mechanisms (Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire). 

Recalibrate South Africa's relations towards the BRICS

Being on the Security Council involves taking far-reaching decisions and addressing issues of global order. South Africa has been a vocal critic of the composition of the Council and the privilege of the veto powers and has sought alternative avenues to influence global governance institutions. Its membership in the BRICS grouping is without a doubt one of the most important foreign policy legacies of the Zuma presidency. This has consolidated South Africa’s position among rising powers and boosted its standing in international affairs. While it intensified relations beyond the Western-dominated centre of world politics and has prominently formulated demands for a reform of global governance institutions in order to accommodate the legitimate interests of emerging (non-Western) powers, a too strong alignment towards the BRICS can also be problematic for South Africa’s foreign policy in the age of growing polarisation. 

"It is not in South Africa's interests to act in a multipolar manner at the expense of multilateralism. Most of today’s crises cannot be solved unilaterally or by small groups of countries; they require collective efforts."

Indeed the BRICS is predominantly build around the concept of multi-polarity despite talking about multilateralism. Multi-polarity is basically about the concentration of power and decision-making within the confines of the sovereign state. Multilateralism is conceptually about the pooling of sovereign resources to reach a common goal. In this respect, it is about providing global public goods. Some BRICS countries actually contribute to the growing polarisation in the international system. However, South Africa, in contrast to the other BRICS members, cannot claim great power status and is significantly more dependent on a world shaped by multilateralism. 

In other words, South Africa does not profit to the same extent as its BRICS colleagues from an increasingly multipolar world but likely more so from principles of the liberal world order in which countries pool sovereignty to jointly achieve governance goals. This makes serving on the Security Council a somehow delicate mission. Russia and China will surely remind South Africa of its group alignment within the BRICS when it comes to voting. But it is not in South Africa's interests to act in a multipolar manner at the expense of multilateralism. Most of today’s crises cannot be solved unilaterally or by small groups of countries; they require collective efforts. 

Consultation and greater cooperation between the UN and AU

South Africa should help promote the legitimate interests of the African continent, which does not have a single permanent seat on the Council but which the Council issues most of its resolutions on. During its last tenure, South Africa sponsored Resolution 2033 (2012) on cooperation between the AU and UN.  This initiative should be re-evaluated and developed further and be given an institutional framework to allow for better, faster and qualitatively meaningful interaction between the UN and AU. 

As a matter of principle, the Security Council should at least consult with its African peer, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the AU, when taking decisions affecting the continent. This also requires the AU to have the right resources available to inform and brief the Security Council on matters concerning Africa. A strong AU representative to the UN, supported by leading African states, is essential to prop up African representation. South Africa can play an important role as bridge -builder between the two organisations.

The use of force in UN missions

In the UN the debate on the use of force within peacekeeping missions continues but without clear direction. While the recent peacekeeping review, titled HIPPO, has emphasised the importance of seeking political solutions to conflict, the so-called Cruz Report seems to favour more robust action from peacekeepers. At the same time classical peacekeeping hardly exists anymore. Often peacekeepers are confronted with peace spoilers, be they rebel groups, terrorists or militias who are uncompromising. Given that most UN missions are deployed to the African continent and that South Africa has prominently contributed to the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which was mandated to “neutralise” rebel groups in the DRC, an active contribution on the debate around peace enforcement should be expected. 

The debate does not need to be framed in an either/or fashion. For South Africa, it is important to take a position which prevents a widening gap between African positions which tend to prefer stabilisation missions (deployments into active conflicts and using force to pacify conflicts) and the UN's classical position on deploying in situations in which a peace agreement has been reached. Bridging this divide is important because most of the African mission deployments are taken over by the UN. If deployment doctrines diverge too much, a smooth transition is jeopardised which in turn compromises the overall aim of peacekeeping deployments.  

Is South Africa up to the task?

A two-year term on the Security Council is a significant constraint which generally works to the advantage of the P5. However, inequality at the Security Council is not only a question of formal rights and privileges of some members vis-à-vis others but also about adequate resourcing and diplomatic expertise in order to take informed decisions. For South Africa, Resolution 1973 (Libya 2011) might serve as a particularly delicate example. While South Africa initially voted in favour of a no-fly zone over Libya, it soon distanced itself from it, arguing that it was misled in accepting it. Here, the problem was less the often rightly criticised regime change approach that followed from the resolution and more South Africa’s blindness towards the already forming coalition to intervene and remove Muammar Gaddafi. While being at the centre of events, South Africa seemed strangely disconnected from how they later unfolded. 

Being voted onto the Security Council for the third time in 12 years is a show of confidence by the international community in South Africa’s leadership abilities. The country must harness this support to finally achieve reform of the Council and a permanent seat for the African continent. South Africa does have all the credentials to perform well on the Council, but it needs to recalibrate some of its foreign policy priorities and rise to the highest professional standards needed to make a meaningful contribution.  

(Main image: The delegation from South Africa prepares to vote during a General Assembly meeting to elect the five non-permanent members of the Security Council on 8 June at the United Nations in New York.  Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images))

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.