SA needs to update approach to Security Council

Image: GALLO IMAGES

South Africa is six months into its third elected term on the UN Security Council. Its conduct in its previous two terms has been criticised because of the country's controversial voting record.

During its first term, it was accused of supporting rogue states when it voted against resolutions condemning human rights abuses in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In its second term, it was accused of voting for Western-sponsored regime change in Libya.

Despite these criticisms, the African Union has endorsed SA's candidature three times and it has received more than two-thirds of the vote in the UN General Assembly.

Being a member of the Security Council matters. This is because it is the most powerful body in the UN.

The membership of the council reflects global power dynamics at the end of World War 2. It has 15 members - five permanent and 10 that are elected by the General Assembly for rotating two- year terms. All have one vote in the council. But the permanent members - the US, the UK, France, Russia and the People's Republic of China - have the power to veto resolutions. This makes them the governing elite of the UN.

SA's re-election to the Security Council under President Cyril Ramaphosa raised hopes of a return to the foreign policy of Nelson Mandela and a stronger commitment to human rights. Though admirable, the fact is that the world has changed dramatically since the Mandela presidency that ended in 1999.

Pretoria needs to update its approach to the Security Council to suit the pressures of a changing world order.

This is illustrated by a number of events that have contributed to a decline in the currency of democracy and set back debates about global human rights.

These include the presidency of Donald Trump, which has led to the US all but abandoning its role as guarantor of the liberal world order. In addition, China is entrenching its position as the new superpower, while Vladimir Putin's Russia has put the great power rivalry back on the agenda.

The shifts in global power dynamics are starkly shown by the fractures in the Security Council. Last year, there were fewer consensus resolutions passed and an increased use of the veto. This trend appears to be continuing this year.

This matters because for 20 years after the end of the Cold War there was a shift towards consensus decision-making in the council.

The drafters and supporters of a resolution tried to get broad agreement on the text before submitting it for discussion.

Consensus decisions gave the Security Council the appearance of legitimacy because the five permanent members cooperated with the majority instead of using their structural power to enforce their particular perspective or interests.

The increased use of the veto and failure to get consensus decisions reflects the return of superpower rivalry and division in the council since the 2011 Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) intervention in Libya and the ongoing stalemate in addressing the intractable war in Syria.

But tensions among the permanent members provide an opportunity for the 10 nonpermanent members to exert greater influence over council operations.

The highlight of SA's tenure will be in October when it holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council.

SA's permanent representative Jerry Matjila has been in the position for three years and has built good relationships with his counterparts. As in its previous two terms, Pretoria's focus for its tenure in the Security Council is the maintenance of peace and security in Africa.

The appointment of a new minister, Naledi Pandor, to the international relations ministry bodes well for the rest of SA's term. She is a seasoned politician with the necessary gravitas to restore respect in SA's foreign policy. - The Conversation

- Mbete is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria

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