Libyan crisis raises questions over UN Security Council, writes Antonia Porter

The principles underlying South Africa's foreign policy have been debated widely recently after the country's early and strong support for UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on, and authorising military action against, Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya, after heightened attacks by government forces on rebels there.

Pretoria joined two votes at the world body's executive: the first, UN Resolution 1970, slapped Tripoli with an arms embargo, referred its government to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and froze its leaders' assets; the second, UN Resolution 1973, permitted "all necessary measures" to enforce a no-fly zone and protect Libyan civilians under attack.

Many diplomats have praised the position South Africa adopted.

Thomas Wheeler, research associate at the SA Institute of International Affairs, and former chief director for global security and disarmament in the then Department for Foreign Affairs, told a meeting on the issue held by the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town last week that Pretoria's decision had contributed to an unprecedented unanimity at the recent Security Council meeting.

He said that the move could allay future criticisms of South Africa's role on the executive body that may emerge later in its present two-year term (2011/12) on the council.

However, other policy analysts have highlighted the limits that constrain South Africa's role on the council and the importance of adopting a nuanced approach that seeks to tackle conflict effectively — rather than merely grandstand under the banner of protecting human rights.

While acknowledging the importance of the recent Security Council decision on Libya, Dumisani Kumalo, CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and former South African permanent representative to the UN, cautioned the Cape Town meeting that, regardless of the resolution, "Gaddafi is still killing people".

Kumalo emphasised that the Security Council will face a challenging term — highlighting what he described as the prospect of civil war in Ivory Coast — and defended decisions made by South Africa during its previous two-year term (2007/08), when it controversially opposed proposed sanctions on the military junta in Burma/Myanmar and President Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe.

The past and present decisions made by Pretoria at the UN Security Council have raised key questions about South Africa's foreign policy: when to support intervention in another country and when to oppose it; when to focus on human rights issues; and when to promote solidarity between developing countries in the face of fundamentally unequal global power relations.

Kumalo maintained that the South African vetoes in 2007 and 2008 simply reflected the positions of the South African people and government.

Acknowledging the importance of human rights, but not its precedence over other constitutional values, Kumalo argued that the cases of Myanmar and Zimbabwe should simply have been dealt with in different forums such as the UN Human Rights Council.

In relation to South Africa's northern neighbour, he added that "the solution lies among the people of Zimbabwe".

Wheeler, by contrast, dryly mocked the alliance that South Africa had forged with Russia and China — "those great paragons of human rights" — on the Myanmar issue. He described the decision to oppose sanctions on Myanmar as "a public relations disaster" for Pretoria. South Africa's vetoes had been cast as part of a greater African project that "downplays human rights in favour of a unified Africa", he told the meeting, which was chaired by Zohra Dawood, executive director at the Open Society Foundation, Cape Town.

Another area of tension in foreign policy that has been explored after the recent sanctions against Libya is the precise nature of Pretoria's position on the ICC.

At Cape Town's public dialogue, Nicole Fritz, executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, contrasted South Africa's decision to back referral of Libya to the court with its support for requests made to the Security Council to defer ICC indictments against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and six Kenyan politicians.

Kumalo sought to defend the apparent contradiction by arguing that short-term justice may not be sufficient to achieve longer-term peace. A balance must always be struck between peace and justice. He argued that suspending ICC judgments was not the same as supporting impunity.

Notwithstanding the differences of opinion on the significance of what Wheeler derisively referred to as the "African consensus" in international affairs, the importance of reforming the 15-member UN Security Council to allow improved representation from the global south has become generally accepted. Africa and Latin America are the only regions without permanent membership on the council.

However, both Wheeler and Kumalo saw few prospects of such reform.

Kumalo expressed doubt that the veto-wielding permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council — the UK, France, Russia, China and the US — would ever voluntarily relinquish their grip on permanent representation there.

He also cautioned that the UN was unlikely to accede to the demand for two permanent seats for Africa and two additional rotating seats to add to its existing three, which was made by the African Union's Ezulwini Consensus, a 2005 declaration on UN reform.

The most realistic outcome would be a seat for only one African country, Kumalo told the meeting.

Kumalo stressed the importance of restructuring the Security Council to restrict the influence of the P-5, "who abuse their power, all of them".

He recalled a 72-hour meeting he had chaired to produce the outcome document of the 2005 UN reform summit. Important language on disarmament, supported by Japan and Germany, among others, had been agreed after a long debate.

However, a few hours later, when the document was presented to the 192-member General Assembly convened to adopt it, the language had disappeared — deleted, without consultation, at the behest of Washington.

The Sisyphean nature of the task of creating a truly representative and effective Security Council has continued to worry many diplomats.

Wheeler noted that the best role that the Security Council may hope to play is "to create values", as the UN is often unable to implement its own decisions.

Kumalo emphasised the continued defiance of the Libyan authorities in the face of sanctions.

The question arises: does the UN Security Council genuinely protect international peace and security in the real world?

Antonia Porter is a project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.

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