SA has a new chance to step up to the plate

2010-10-23 15:44

South African officials are excited about the country’s election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations ­Security ­Council.

A council that brings ­together Germany, the Bric nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and Bric wannabe South ­Africa, has led to some irrational ­exuberance that a fundamental ­restructuring of the ­international order could be at hand. It’s not.

Of course, this new membership roster may give emerging powers a chance to strut their stuff globally, even as it gives diplomatic challenges to the US in terms of dealing with sticky issues regarding Zimbabwe, ­Burma, North ­Korea and Iran.

South Africa had its first chance on the ­council several years earlier, but most ­observers agreed it was something of a wasted opportunity as the country lined up on a technicality to protect the generals who brutalise ­Burma and shielded Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Now, with its selection for its second term as a non-permanent member, the international relations department is ­arguing that the ­Security Council is more ­representative of the world’s newer powers and that this will allow South ­Africa to advance an African agenda.

Because so much of the council’s agenda does focus on African conflicts, this could make this edition the right place to focus more closely on such ­issues.

However, the case for adding permanent members to the Security Council has usually been made on ­economic grounds, not ­simply on ­regional ones.

The deeper problem about seeing membership as shorthand for ­fundamental changes to world politics is that the UN is less and less a focal point for the key international ­negotiations that really matter.

Trade issues go to the G8 and G20, the World Trade Organisation rounds or Asia-Pacific Economic ­Cooperation meetings.

Nuclear ­proliferation gets discussed outside of the UN and global climate ­negotiations take place at ­meetings like the recent one in Copenhagen.

Many of the Security Council’s ­debates – or actions – are now about problems in Somalia, Sudan, the Great Lakes region and West ­Africa’s collapsed states.

So this new term at the Security Council is a chance for South ­Africa to show the kind of activism it has often been reluctant to exercise on the global level.

South Africa’s real challenge with this second term will be to show it can offer continental leadership, without getting the backs up of the other 50-odd African nations, in a way that brings the big powers on board as well.

In the post-1994 era, Pretoria’s initial ­effort for a highly moral foreign policy ­foundered against Abacha’s venal ­Nigerian ­regime.

South Africa’s real efforts now should be to use its two years on the ­Security Council to push the UN ­towards more energetic and ­tangible efforts on climate change, ­desertification, water resources, and ­innovative food ­security issues – the kinds of issues central to many ­African problems – ­rather than chasing a ­full-time, permanent seat.

»? Spector is associate editor of online publication The Daily Maverick and an international affairs commentator

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