SA at the UN: Do they jump or are they pushed?

Many observers say that South Africa’s handling of the United Nations Security Council’s agenda this year has been, at best, clumsy and cloudy, at worst embarrassingly contradictory.

The South African team voted for a resolution on Libya mandating the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians, but has since decried the military intervention that followed as being excessive. On the other hand, it executed a sound strategy on the renewal of the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso).

It is in the context of UN peacekeeping reform that Baso Sangqu, South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, situated his “yes” vote for resolution 1973, which empowered the UN to use all necessary means to protect civilians from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Interviewed in Washington last month, Sangqu argued that R2P—the UN acronym for its “responsibility to protect” initiative—was a concept pioneered by the African Union (AU). When the Libyan insurgency flared and Gaddafi “began to echo the language used by the interahamwe to dehumanise Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide”, South Africa had responded by supporting the imposition of sanctions against the Libyan government, an arms embargo, travel ban and an International Crimes Court referral.

And what about the subsequent resolution, which mandated the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and the protection of civilians by force? The ANC Youth League regarded South Africa’s supporting vote as an attack on the sovereignty of a fellow African country, but others saw it as a snub to the African Union, which had opposed foreign occupation of Libya, and to the Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric) group, the members of which abstained from voting. Sangqu said all parties in the Security Council agreed that force could be used to protect civilians.

Three developments swayed the South African vote. The AU heads of state released a statement rejecting any foreign military intervention in Libya, without commenting on the no-fly zone. Then Lebanon called on the UN to enforce a no-fly zone and, under the principle of subsidiarity—that states closer to a situation have a better grasp of it—South Africa took this seriously. The tipping point was an Arab League statement strongly opposing any foreign feet on Libyan soil, but calling for a no-fly zone.

Voting yes
After working to ensure that the operative paragraphs of resolution 1973 precluded any foreign occupation, Sangqu said, South Africa set the cat among the pigeons by voting “yes”.

“It was a big surprise,” said one Western ambassador. “I don’t think anybody was expecting that, not with South Africa’s new Bric friends abstaining.” Sangqu insisted, however, that the Bric nations supported the use of force to protect civilians, in line with the discourse on peacekeeping reform. “The abstentions came in, I think, because it was not clear who would do the implementation,” he said.

But why not abstain as well? Sangqu’s explanation, which relies on the context of peacekeeping reform, on believing enough in the principle of meaningful civilian protection to want to risk the unknown, simply did not cut it for many in New York.

The New York Times hinted at coercion, reporting that UN ambassador Susan Rice had retrieved Sangqu from outside the council chambers to ensure that he voted for resolution 1973. Many UN reporters wondered whether South Africa had backed the mainstream in the hope of winning support for a permanent seat on the Security Council, and the rumour that it had cut a back-room deal with the US gained traction.

Sangqu dismissed such speculation. “The decision to vote yes was made in Pretoria,” he said. “People can lobby me all they want, but ultimately these decisions are the result of incredibly broad consultation processes between our own people and our regional organisations.”

When South African leaders began criticising the implementers of ­resolution 1973 for overstepping their mandate, much of the UN community was incredulous. “Nobody here believes South Africa’s excuse that they did not understand how the resolution would be implemented,” said a prominent ambassador. Others saw the apparent volte face as the result of domestic and regional opposition to South Africa’s vote.

Sangqu dismissed this. “It’s not ambiguous at all,” he said, insisting that nothing in resolution 1973 legalised regime change. “Many of us worked a great deal on the operational clauses of the resolution to ensure that this was the case. However, on reflection, I think there are sufficient loopholes in resolution 1973 to enable abuse and the question we’re asking ourselves now is: how do we tighten the resolutions to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again in the future? As things stand, with implementers of the resolution abusing it in the service of their own agendas, the noble concept of more effective peacekeeping risks going into reverse.”

‘Naive misstep’
The consensus seems to be that South Africa made a naive misstep that was exploited, and that history could come down hard on it for its lack of imagination and strategic nous. Sangqu is known to be less flamboyant than his predecessor, Dumisani Khumalo, although most of his counterparts regard him as a more congenial person with whom to work. French ambassador Gerard Araud described him in a dispatch home as “a nice surprise”, but a UN-based news anchor I spoke to called him a shrinking violet: “He’s wary of saying anything that isn’t the established line from Pretoria.”

It was a different story on the issue of human rights in the Western Sahara. In the stakeout area where Security Council ambassadors address journalists after closed sessions Sangqu effectively accused secretary general Ban Ki Moon and other members of the Security Council of hypocrisy. “It’s important that we apply the same standards to all the situations of human rights on the Security Council’s agenda,” he said.

Sangqu took to the stakeout a few more times in the next 10 days as the resolution on Western Sahara was worked through the council, looking bolder and angrier on each occasion.

This was not surprising—Western Sahara was the first established African issue the South Africans had to deal with in 2011. Libya and Côte d’Ivoire had highlighted South Africa’s inability to make sound policy decisions on the hoof; Western Sahara was a test for which the South Africans could prepare.

Morocco occupies much of Western Sahara, although the Polisario Front has managed to prevail on 81 states to formally recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state.

Because colonialism is anathema to the AU, it invited the SADR to become a member. Now any AU member that lands on the Security Council has a duty every April, when the Minurso’s mandate comes up for renewal, to push for a new resolution that moves the cause of the Sahrawi forward.

Morocco has powerful friends in France and the US and their involvement in the complex politics of the Maghreb region has created a stalemate on the issue of Sahrawi self-determination for years. This is despite reports of major human rights abuses, mostly unverified because no independent monitoring mechanism has been allowed to operate in the region.

This was South Africa’s ticket to the fight during its last tenure. It was an even hotter ticket this time when it appeared that Ban Ki Moon, after Moroccan and French lobbying, had excised from his annual report a paragraph about the need for such a mechanism. This ­apparent capitulation “greatly disappointed” Sangqu, who pointed out that Minurso was the only UN peacekeeping mission that lacked such a mechanism, and that “the secretary general and the secretariat of the UN ought to be independent, impartial”.

Sangqu’s criticisms ratcheted up when the deficient report was turned into a draft resolution by the “friends of Western Sahara”, a group of nations that included former colonial powers Spain and France, but no African representatives. Sangqu also dragged this into the public domain.

Most Security Council ambassadors commended Sangqu on an effective strategy, adding that they would have done the same in his shoes. “What makes it palatable is the fact that he brings no ego to the fight, which makes the debates constructive, whereas with his predecessor there was always blood on the walls,” said one.

Ultimately, South Africa joined a unanimous vote for the renewal of Minurso’s mandate that did not include a human rights mechanism. But in fighting for it until deadline day it made the inclusion of the mechanism very difficult to resist next year—particularly if there are continued reports of human rights abuses.

The South African team had also demonstrated a level of sophistication that will be interesting to see in action as more familiar mandates, such as those relating to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, come up for review.

South Africa’s Security Council delegation appears more efficient when its methods and logic operate with minimal interference from outside the international relations and cooperation department. It has been outplayed when the levers have been in the hands of the executive or other players who push the button on major international relations issues—and no seems to know exactly who has the final word.

This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. All views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian

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