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Marriage of convenience: Can SA unite the UN Security Council and the AU?

International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu lauded South Africa’s recent election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as an opportunity for the country to enhance close co-operation between the council and Africa.

In a press statement following last Friday’s announcement, Sisulu emphasised that South Africa’s previous role as a member of the council – first between 2007 and 2008, and then between 2011 and 2012 – has been to advocate collaboration between the security council and the African Union (AU).

This, Sisulu said, culminated in the adoption of the 2012 “landmark resolution” which saw the council welcoming an increased contribution from the AU in efforts to settle conflicts on the continent and expressing its support for the union’s peace initiatives.

This, alongside the fact that South Africa’s candidacy was endorsed at January’s African Union Summit, means the country will likely be judged on its ability to create coherence among the council’s African members and bridge critical divisions between the United Nations and the AU Peace and Security Council.

Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea are the two other African members of the UNSC – a grouping which Liesl Louw-Vaudran, who runs the Peace and Security Council report for the Institute for Security Studies, said could make for an interesting dynamic.

This dynamic, she told the Mail & Guardian, could be encumbered by each member’s political relation to the Western Sahara conflict.

Western Sahara is Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute and debates over its sovereignty constitute an issue of continental and international law and diplomatic controversy. The disputed territory is claimed by both Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s Polisario Front.

South Africa’s political support of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a partially recognised state that controls a thin strip of area in the Western Sahara region and claims sovereignty over the entire territory, puts it at odds with over half of the AU’s member states — including Côte d’Ivoire.

The West African nation is one of the leading countries in the Francophone regions of Africa and is also sympathetic to Morocco’s position.

Although it is not recognised by the UN, the SADR has held full membership of the African Union since 1982. Morocco withdrew from the AU in protest in 1984, only to rejoin the union in January last year – a move which rekindled this political rift within the organisation.

Despite this, Louw-Vaudran said the three African members of the UNSC “are not obliged to speak with one voice”, adding that South Africa’s challenge will be to try and find consensus between the.

Louw-Vaudran said that, though South Africa does have a diminished capacity to carry out peacekeeping missions – as it had done so in Burundi in 2000 – the country is still regarded globally as a heavyweight in the field of international diplomacy.

The country’s political strength within the Southern African Development Community, she said, is testament to its diplomatic capacity.

“Its capacity to affect change will therefore rely on its ability to enact soft power, rather than its show of military force,” Louw-Vaudran said.

“There might be limits to what non-permanent members of the security council can do, but South Africa’s advantage is that most discussions within the UNSC are about Africa.” 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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