In April 2008 South Africa is set to head the United Nations Security Council for the second time, according to a statement by Xolisa Mabhongo, chief director for United Nations affairs in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
South Africa is a non-permanent member of the 15-nation UN decision-making body. The UN General Assembly, meeting in New York in October 2006, chose South Africa without opposition to occupy one of the Security Council’s 10 temporary seats for two years, starting on 1 January 2007.
The Security Council shapes the UN’s approach to conflict zones that are considered a threat to international security.
Its five permanent members – the US, France, Britain, China and Russia – reflect the global balance of power when the council was formed in 1946. Each of its 15 members, whether permanent or temporary, holds the presidency for a one-month period in rotating alphabetical order.
During South Africa’s first presidency, in January 2007, the country focused on strengthening the relationship between the UN and the African Union (AU).
Mabhongo said South Africa was instrumental in revitalising Security Council discussions on this relationship, and it was at the country’s request that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began to formulate a firm strategy for better UN cooperation with regional organisations such as the AU.
A report on this strategy is pending, and it is likely to be discussed during South Africa’s second presidency. Mabhongo said there was a particular hope for proposals on UN funding of regional peacekeeping initiatives, and greater cooperation with regional conflict mediators.
The DFA has concluded a review on the performance of South Africa’s first year in the Security Council, measuring its achievements against its goals and formulating a strategy for the year ahead.
Temporary membership has its disadvantages: these countries can find effective participation in the Security Council difficult, as they have not been members for long enough to make a realistic contribution. But according to Mabhongo, the DFA assessment revealed that South Africa had been able, during the first year, to overcome this limitation.
“We have been able to make inputs and participate in all the discussions that have been on the agenda of the UNSC,” he said.
South Africa’s first presidency was marked by both foreign-policy successes and some controversy. The latter included a vote against a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Myanmar, and an attempt to temper a resolution on sanctions against Iran.
But according to the DFA performance review, the country’s work on the Security Council has successfully complemented South Africa’s direct foreign policies – particularly those involving African issues such as mediation in conflict situations in Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Even before South Africa became a member of the UNSC and even after the expiry of our tenure in the UNSC, we will continue to be engaged on the range of these African issues,” Mabhongo said.
The first year
South Africa achieved some notable successes in its first year on the Security Council. In January 2007, the month of its presidency, the council adopted a presidential statement, read by then council president Dumisani Kumalo, stressing the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts towards peace and security.
“We count this as one of the achievements of our first year on the UNSC – to ensure that the UNSC recognises in a proactive way the important role of women in peace and security,” said Mabhongo.
During that year South Africa and the UK led a UNSC mission to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Ghana in its capacity as chair of the AU, to discuss cooperation on issues of peace and security.
Then there was the joint initiative between South Africa and Slovakia to raise awareness of African concerns on Security Sector Reform (SSR). SSR is a model to reform a state’s security sector, especially when the sector is unable to provide effective services to the state and its people. This often happens in post-conflict situations.
In November 2007 South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her Slovakian counterpart Jan Kubis hosted an international SSR workshop in Cape Town, with the theme Enhancing United Nations Support for SSR in Africa: Towards an African Perspective.
During the meeting Dlamini-Zuma said professional, effective and accountable security services are important for establishing lasting peace and development worldwide. She added that she hoped that the workshop’s deliberations would support similar initiatives at the AU and the UN.
Other 2007 achievements included South Africa’s leadership of any statement or resolution on Timor-Leste – also known as East Timor, in southeast Asia. The Security Council also adopted, while under South Africa’s presidency, a proactive policy on small arms and light weapons, regarded as a step towards clamping down on the proliferation of illicit trade in small arms.
According to Mabhongo, 2008 will see South Africa continuing to use its Security Council seat to augment its foreign policy strategies, especially in matters involving Africa. He said the country will use its month as president to build on work done in 2007, particularly that of enhancing the relationship between the council and regional organisations, particularly the AU.
In 2008 South Africa will also chair the Security Council Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention in Africa. It will assume the position of vice-chair of subsidiary bodies dealing with Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, and host the council’s Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate, which will assess the country’s compliance with UNSC counter-terrorism resolutions as well the effectiveness of its systems in the fight against terrorism.
South Africa’s two-year tenure
South Africa officially took up its two-year position as a non-permanent member of the Security Council on 2 January 2007, alongside Panama, Indonesia, Italy and Belgium.
The Security Council is the most powerful body within the UN. Seats on the council are keenly contested, with many countries actively canvassing for votes from fellow UN members.
The 10 non-permanent seats are assigned on a two-year membership basis, with five being replaced every year. The African bloc chooses three members while the Latin America and the Caribbean, Asian, and Western European and Others blocs choose two members. The Eastern European bloc chooses one member. One of these 10 members is an Arab country, alternately from the Asian or African bloc. South Africa’s current colleagues from the African continent are Burkina Faso and Libya.
Expansion of the Security Council is under discussion. This may take the form of an increase in the number of permanent members, or elimination of the veto privilege held by the five permanent members. Policy analysts consider South Africa, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria to be the most likely candidates should Africa be granted a permanent seat.
In 2005 African leaders adopted the Ezulwini Consensus, which presses for no less than two permanent and five non-permanent seats for Africa when the Security Council is restructured. They are challenging the council’s current structure, arguing that the outmoded post-war power model does not correlate to today’s issues – poverty, human rights abuses, developing nations, and even genocide.
Addressing the country’s Parliament in February 2007, Dlamini-Zuma stressed the importance of South Africa’s role in the Security Council. “South Africa’s tenure as a non-permanent member of the United Security Council affords us the opportunity to make direct contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security,” she said.
“South Africa’s vision is of an African continent that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united and which contributes to a world that is just and equitable. Membership of the Security Council is an opportunity to promote the African agenda and South Africa’s national interests.”