No. 348: Africa Gifted a West-inclined UN with Ubuntu / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
19 October 2015
Seventy years ago this week, the United Nations (UN) emerged like the mythical Egyptian phoenix from the ashes of the Second World War. The world body was born "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". African states at the UN, with their southern, Nordic and Soviet bloc allies, established new concepts in international law in areas related to self-determination, decolonisation, the right to use force in wars of national liberation, and racial discrimination, with apartheid being declared a "crime against humanity".
As an ally of Pax Africana, about half (29 of 56) of the UN's peacekeeping missions in the post-Cold War era have occurred on the continent.
The world body has established subregional offices in West and Central Africa; two Africans Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Ghana's Kofi Annan served as UN secretaries-general during the critical post-Cold War years of 1992 and 2006, while Boutros-Ghali, Annan, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi and South Sudanese scholar-diplomat Francis Deng were involved in leading some of the most important conceptual debates on UN peacekeeping and "the responsibility to protect". Nairobi site of the UN Environment Programme remains one of only four UN headquarters across the world, along with New York, Geneva and Vienna.
However, the UN has also practised a system of "global apartheid". The paradox of the world body is that, while it embodies ideals of justice and equality, the power politics embodied in its structures often means that the powerful, aristocratic brahmins of international society can manipulate the system to the disadvantage of the dalits. The five permanent members of the powerful 15-member UN Security Council the US, Russia, China, France and the UK account for 70% of arms sales that fuel conflicts across the globe.
London, Paris and Washington insist on drafting all the UN resolutions in 14 out of 18 African cases on the council. Africa and Latin America remain the only major regions without veto-wielding permanent membership, and in an apartheid system of peacekeeping, Africans and Asians spill most of the blood, while western donors pay some of the bills.
In the area of socioeconomic apartheid, many of the UN's agencies set up after 1945 to promote such issues as health, labour, refugees, agriculture and education all had European origins.
From the 1960s, African states and their allies expanded on these institutions, leading the creation of the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Development Programme. They sought to use these institutions to promote their own socioeconomic development.
But despite these efforts, powerful western governments continue to exert their influence through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, which they, in effect, control.
SA has been at the heart of the UN, first as a target of sanctions, and later as a key actor. The unspoken Afro-Arab pact during the Cold War involved the Africans agreeing to support the Palestinian struggle against Israel, in exchange for the Arabs backing Africa's struggle against apartheid.
The UN Special Committee against Apartheid was established in 1962, and set up a South African trust fund to support the oppressed majority, as well as bodies to push for a sports boycott and an oil embargo. SA was suspended from the General Assembly in 1974, and an arms embargo was imposed on Pretoria three years later.
After 1994, SA hosted two major UN summits against racism (2001) and on sustainable development (2002); twice served on the security council (2007-08 and 2011-12); and contributed more than 3,000 troops to peacekeeping missions in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Navi Pillay also served as UN high commissioner for human rights, while Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka heads UN Women.
In a speech at the UN to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 1995, then South African president Nelson Mandela noted: "We come from Africa and SA.... to pay tribute to that founding ideal, and to thank the United Nations for challenging, with us, a system that defined fellow humans as lesser beings.... No one, in the North or the South, can escape the cold fact that we are a single humanity."
The African continent's enduring legacy to the UN as embodied by its most revered global statesman could well be the concept of ubuntu: the gift of discovering our shared humanity.
Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg