100 days: South Africa’s Uncertain Direction on the UNSC, by Benji Shulman

26 Apr

Editor’s Note:  Benji Shulman is a resident of South Africa, was an intern with Global Action in the summer of 2014, and has been a colleague of longstanding through our Green Map affiliate.  This reflecton on South Africa’s early tenure on the UN Security Council reflects the policy thoughtfulness we have come to expect from Benji. 

The minister of the Department International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) of South Africa, recently gave an address to a local think tank on their policy positions for the UN Security Council (see here). South Africa is over three months into its role as a non-permanent member of the council, for the period of 2019-2020. What is immediately apparent is that South Africa’s tenure will bring with a number of opportunities to advance multi-lateral agenda items that are on the UNSC bucket list. However, its ability to deliver these may be hampered by some of its bilateral approaches to international relations.

Two multi-lateral issues of significance in the minister’s statement provide especially good opportunities for South Africa to provide meaningful engagement on the Council.

The first, is that of arms control. The minister noted that from its first term on the Council (this is now its third), it was proud of its achievements in this area. It has also stated that in its role as chair of the African Union, this will also be a priority.  Given the Council’s recent focus on this area, as well as the upcoming NPT “Prep Com” in New York, South Africa’s perspective from a continent where arms control is a serious challenge will be welcome.

The second issue is that of gender. South Africa has pushed this agenda at the UN for a while now, engaging in frameworks for the greater participation for women in peacekeeping mandates and other peace and security responsibilities. A key part of its stated aims will be the support and encouragement of women’s full participation, not just at the UNSC, but also in its own diplomatic corps. In an age where gender campaigns have been gaining prominence, this should continue to receive strong support from member states and NGO’s.

Despite this positive approach, South Africa may find that the above focusses and programmes on their agenda might run into challenges because of some of its bilateral foreign policy priorities. Take for example, two of the country’s stated objectives for its current term:

  • South Africa upholds in the strongest terms the principles of the UN Charter without biastoward any country.
  • We support the peaceful resolution of conflicts, with a focus on prevention, the utilization of mediation approaches, and the promotion of inclusive dialogue.

Three months into its UNSC tenure these objectives are already coming under strain. The first instance, was its voting pattern on the UNSC vote on Myanmar, where South Africa abstained from voting on a resolution condemning that government’s actions against the Rohingya minority. The minister has said, that in effect, this was a “technical error” based on a voting strategy which was adopted before being elected onto the Council.

Nonetheless, other Council members will have good cause to be suspicious of South Africa’s potentially partisan stances.  Members will no doubt be aware of the country’s reputation for a being a “rogue democracy”, voting with the Council’s more autocratic members on various UN resolutions.  South Africa’s minister has been stung by criticism that its standing in the international community has dropped considerably in the last ten years and is clearly looking to restore its moral authority.  The minister’s statement is replete with language about “imperialism” and accusations that western countries are “undermining” regional powers. This will perhaps make member states wonder if South Africa is coming to its Council responsibilities with a more divisive agenda than they have let on so far.

More evidence of this kind of division can be seen in the minister’s posture toward the state of Israel. The statement suggested that South Africa would be looking to downgrade its relations with Israel in the coming term. Most countries on the current Council have been working in the opposite direction in regards to their relationship with Israel, especially the P5. Even Kuwait, which has no official ties with Israel, has seen informal improvements in relations of late. A move by South Africa to distance itself further from Israel could be diplomatically counter-productive and might especially annoy the United States, which already has a poor “UN relationship” with South Africa.

If the current Council members see South Africa’s inclusion on the Council and its behaviour as embracing a too-narrow agenda in terms of its diplomatic relations, then this could prove to be an alienating influence on other members.  This, in turn, would threaten to undermine Council support for South Africa’s aforementioned and quite welcome multi-lateral goals.  Three months is a short time to be on the UNSC but South Africa will have to work out some of these contractions as it goes forward in promoting its agenda.

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