SA's return to Security Council under scrutiny

Rights groups will keep a close eye on South Africa’s return to the UN Security Council, where the country’s last term drew complaints it had betrayed the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle.

South Africa won a non-permanent seat on the 15-member council in an uncontested vote last week, giving the country a new two-year term starting in January.

The country’s last stint on the UN decision-making body drew sharp criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch, which said South Africa had “sided with reactionary rather than progressive forces”.

Under former president Thabo Mbeki, South Africa shielded Zimbabwe from international sanctions over electoral violence in 2008, sought to deflect action against Burma over the deadly repression of Buddhist monks in 2007, and tempered criticism of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Mbeki, who championed an “African Renaissance”, frequently criticised Western domination in world affairs and wanted to give countries the chance to resolve their problems internally. A similar argument was made by the apartheid government when it tried to stop global sanctions on the whites-only regime, which didn’t stop the world from taking action.

Human rights activists hope that the African National Congress, which has governed since the first democratic elections in 1994, will take heed of its past.

“We urge South Africa—as a leading democracy with a vital role to play in world affairs—to ensure that this time, whenever vital human rights issues are at stake at the UN, it will vote like a democracy,” said Hillel Neuer, head of the group UN Watch, which monitors the global body.

Different course
Since taking office in May 2009, President Jacob Zuma’s government has indicated that it could follow a different course.

“We cannot afford to betray the confidence of the UN member states and the international community at large in our ability to contribute and further advance the cause of international peace and security and international law,” foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said after returning from New York last week.

Without mentioning Mbeki, she promised: “We will not trade our constitutional values and the rich tradition of struggle against injustice for political point-scoring.”

South Africa has made concrete signs of a shift since the ANC sacked Mbeki as president. In November 2009, the country supported a General Assembly resolution against Burma, noted Yolanda Spies, a University of Pretoria researcher.

“The incoming Zuma administration quickly moved to signal a new ethical course,” she said in a recent article.

“However, the new administration’s foreign policy also yielded its share of contradiction and contention,” she said, noting Pretoria’s often ambiguous stance on the war-crimes warrant against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.

But she said so far Zuma’s style has been more “inclusive and consultative”, compared to Mbeki’s elitist approach to politics.

“The tone is increasingly pragmatic,” she said, a point recently made by deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim.

“We must always have in mind the pursuit of our national interests in our foreign policy,” he said.

Voting no
However, South Africa would again vote against UN sanctions on Zimbabwe if the issue returned before the Security Council during the country’s next term on the body, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

When South Africa last held one of the Council’s 15 seats in 2007/08, it blocked sanctions against Zimbabwe over deadly electoral violence.

If the issue arose again when South Africa returns to the Council in January, the country would block sanctions again, foreign ministry director general Ayanda Ntsaluba told the National Press Club in Pretoria.

“We must be able to distinguish between issues of human rights violations, bad governance and issues that pose threats to international peace and security.
All three are different and then should not be conflated,” he said.

“The UN Security Council wanted to vote to introduce Zimbabwe as an issue on its agenda” in 2008, he said. “South Africa would still vote ‘no’ on this.”

Ntsaluba said South Africa continues to oppose “mandate creep”, or expanding the role of the Council.

“Issues that pose threats to global peace and security legitimately belong on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Issues of human rights violations belong with the UN Human Rights Council. Issues of bad governance should be dealt with as such,” he said.—AFP