SA’s arms in for a twisting

South Africa’s temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council is likely to be a mixed blessing.

Since the end of the Cold War, members have had to weigh the cost of their principles as the United States has twisted elbows to get its way.

An American diplomat famously told Yemen during the first Gulf War that its council vote against Desert Storm was the most expensive it had ever cast. The US followed up by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, while Saudi Arabia deported hundreds of thousands of Yemenis.

But a recent study showed that developing countries on the council benefit from the resulting attention and prominence and that they receive more aid during their tenure.

And while much of the focus is on the permanent five — the US, Britain, France, China and Russia — temporary members have a strong record of making themselves heard. In recent years, while Paris and Moscow grandstanded about their opposition to the Iraq invasion, much of the real resistance came from principled smaller powers such as Ireland, Jamaica and Chile, who highlighted the importance of international law and the UN Charter.

Executive director of the Security Council Report, Colin Keating, ambassador for New Zealand during the Bosnian wars and the Iraqi sanctions, when his country played a similar role, remains up-beat about South African membership.

”It’s a really important opportunity, not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk, with contributions to diplomacy and peacekeeping efforts in Africa.”

However, Keating cautioned against parochialism. ”It also involves being interested and actively involved in issues outside the region. The value of the Security Council is that it brings a global perspective; it’s not just about neighbourly and regional issues.”

He believes a country of South Africa’s size need not worry too much about being in the front line of opposition to the US. ”There are bigger pitfalls in terms of relations with small and medium powers in Africa. If you put too much energy and thought into dealing with the big guys, you may neglect the smaller ones.

”Larger countries like Nigeria and South Africa are respected, but also feared by their friends and neighbours, so it would help to talk to them, listen to them, rather than talking down.”

Among the issues on the Security Council’s immediate agenda are Darfur, Iran and perennial Middle Eastern questions. South Africa will undoubtedly diverge from the West on these issues, but will escape some of the heat because it will almost certainly be joined by Venezuela on the council — despite the Bush administration’s success in persuading Guatemala to contend for the seat and deny President Hugo Chávez a pulpit from which to preach his anti-imperialist sermon.

Venezuela is tipped to win, not only because it has so much declared support but also because the secret ballot gives delegates a risk-free opportunity to give a discreet middle finger to Washington, whose bullying tactics are widely resented.

In a much-applauded speech on Tuesday, Chávez played to the UN General Assembly gallery, repeatedly referring to George Bush as the devil and mocking the speech he had given the day before. The US delegation was pointedly absent, leaving, according to US Ambassador John Bolton, ”a junior note-taker” in the US seat.

The US will not have this luxury in the 15-member Security Council, where it has to listen to the other members. This is one of its attractions, as compared with being one voice among 190 in the Assembly.

However, South Africa’s temporary berth is not likely to advance its ambitions for a permanent seat on an enlarged council. The Americans oppose expansion and the project has been hopelessly stalled by divisions in the developing world over the shape of reform, and who should get permanent seats.

Ian Williams is the UN correspondent of The Nation newspaper in the United States

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