Brief Analysis

South Africa at the UN Security Council in 2019/20: What’s Different This Time?

by  Itumeleng Makgetla  (FAPISA Research Associate)

18 Sep. 2018

Security Council Meeting: The situation in Somalia Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia (S/2010/447)

On 8 June, South Africa secured a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the third time after being nominated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and endorsed by the African Union (AU) during its summit in January. Its latest term will be for the duration of 2019-2020, having previously served in 2007–2008 and 2011–2012.

In its bidding for the seat, South Africa declared its intention to promote an African Agenda of peace and security on the African continent. It is widely expected that South Africa will use its seat to push for resolutions to stem the abuses against civilians in the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although it was the only African country backed by SADC, receiving 183 out of the 190 votes, it’s election was not without controversy, stemming from its track record in the Security Council. In its first term in 2007, South Africa voted against an important resolution calling for a cease to military attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma, joining Russia and China as they vetoed. During its second term in 2011, the country began to abstain on all votes relating to the global south after it was criticized as championing a Western agenda when it voted to authorize a no-fly zone in Libya. Just a few months after the Libya vote, it abstained on a resolution that would have “condemned grave and systematic human rights violations” in Syria.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement, South Africa would seek to advance “priorities of the African Union Agenda 2063”. Since Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency in February earlier this year, his engagement with his counterparts both in the global north and south signals an emergence of a new foreign policy reorientation for South Africa- an arrangement that is perceptibly different from that put into effect by his predecessor former president Jacob Zuma.

Under Zuma’s administration, the country’s foreign policy alignment seemed to lean heavily towards a closer partnership with countries in the East, in particular China, Russia and India, chiefly as a result of the strong magnetic pull brought about by the invitation to join the BRIC countries in 2011. Zuma’s palpable anti-Western attitude somewhat widened the chasm between South Africa and the West, almost eviscerating its relations with Britain while its fruit exporters encountered difficulties from the European Union. However, the recent visit by the British Prime minister, Theresa May suggests willingness to mend the historic relationship between the two countries–amidst Britain’s disentanglement from its biggest trading partner, the EU following its June 2016 referendum vote.

Amidst the swiftly shifting sands of global politics, South Africa assumes the seat at the height of uncertainty in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), brought about by an unpredictable tenure of President Donald Trump. On 19 June, the United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement at a press conference of US withdrawal from the UNHRC. Haley lamenting that the council was “not worthy of its name”. She decried the membership of countries like China, Cuba and Venezuela that are themselves accused of human rights violations. She further said that the council also has a “chronic bias against Israel”. South Africa and the United States have adopted a diametrically opposed policy stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict. In June 2017, the ANC national policy conference adopted a policy recommendation made by the ANC in the Western Cape to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office in a bid to reduce diplomatic ties to Israel. On 14 May Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, killing 55 and injuring more than 2,400 people protesting opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

The Trump administration has introduced a curious dialectic of shunning those whom the United States disagree with, thus turning upside-down established practices in international relations, all in the name of Trump’s resolve to put America first. The administration announced earlier this year that it would stop all funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which in recent years reached $ 350 million annually. This move is expected to have adverse effects on the region as it will further destabilize Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. The US withdrawal from the UNHRC and South Africa’s worsening ties with Israel only serve to prolong the Palestine-Israel crisis as the two can no longer claim neutrality that is crucial in the peace talks.

In recent years, the United Nations has faced fierce criticism, some critics going as far as as to liken the body to a self-fulfilling oligarchy, calling for its reform. As a result of these series of events, South Africa is well positioned to exert pressure for reform while contributing positively to the continent’s agenda for peace and security while at the same time it tries to navigate the changing climate in world politics.