President Jacob Zuma has become one of the first African leaders to put blame for the devastating African refugee crises on Nato countries. And he is unapologetic about it.
“They caused it. They must address it,” he firmly told a room full of ambassadors, Cabinet ministers and the media on Tuesday.
The president further called out European countries, which he blamed for causing instability in the North African region, for closing their borders to African refugees.
“Today those who are part of destabilising that part of the world … they don’t want to accept the refugees,” Zuma said, garnering the nods of ambassadors from many African countries.
The high commissioner of Ghana, Kwesi Ahwoi, was one African representative who fully endorsed what Western diplomats regarded as Zuma’s hardline view.
Ahwoi said it was time the world accepted the hard truth.
‘Dictators’ to blame
But ambassadors of countries that are signatories to Nato and the European Union would not have any of it.
EU ambassador to South Africa Roeland van de Geer said the responsibility of what happened in North Africa lies with its leaders and not with Nato countries, as Zuma had suggested.
“We lay the responsibility of what is happening in the countries of the migrants clearly in the hands of the leaders who were dictators and did not respect democracy,” he said.
Van de Geer said people were only leaving situations created by their leaders.
Zuma disagreed, saying that before Nato interference in Libya and the subsequent killing of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, there were no refugees flocking to European countries.
“Where the refugees are suddenly flooding Europe. What has happened? The consistent and systematic bombing by Nato forces undermined the security and caused conflicts that are continuing in Libya and neighbouring countries,” Zuma said.
He said prior to that, there was no African migrant crisis.
“It was all quiet. Things were normal in the north of Africa. It was the actions taken, the bombarding of Libya and killing of its leader, that opened the flood gates,” Zuma said.
UN action in Libya
In early 2011, the United Nations imposed a no-flying zone on Libya and air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.
Ironically, in a move that South Africa later regretted, the country voted in favour of that action by the UN.
“When Africa was saying it had a roadmap to work with the Libyans to change the situation in Libya, all of that was ignored,” Zuma said.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has estimated that at least 350 000 migrants were detected at the EU’s borders from January to August 2015. This figure did not include the many who went undetected.
At the same time, many migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.
Zuma said it was the painful truth that Western countries undermine proposed African solutions and fail to deal with the consequences of their actions.
He further took a dig at European countries for the refugee crisis emerging in Syria, which has been plagued by war for at least four years.
“It took the painful drowning of a four-year-old Syrian child to shake the world into action. Attempts to shut the borders by some European countries will not assist the situation,” Zuma said in reference to the picture of Ahyan Kurdi, who washed up on a Turkish beach.
Zuma said to achieve lasting peace in Syria, the international community had to reject all calls for regime change in that country.
“The international community must not support external military interference or any action in Syria that is not in line with the Charter of the United Nations. Support for non-state actors and terrorist organisations that seek to effect a regime change in Syria is unacceptable,” he said.
Rights of developing countries
Next week, Zuma is expected to head the South African delegation to the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly.
He said South Africa would be part of a group of developing countries that will advocate for reform of the UN system to make it more responsive to the interests and needs of developing countries, which are the majority of its members.
“This is more so for Africa, a continent with more than one billion people, which is not represented in the UN Security Council as permanent members,” he said.
Zuma said outstanding peace and security issues would still loom large as the UN met.
“We believe that there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East as long as Palestinians are denied their inalienable right to a state of their own,” he said.