SA Does Good and Well on Libya

March 22, 2011

Credit: IOLSome reports have suggested that US UN ambassasdor Susan Rice had to leave the Security Council chamber ahead of Thursday’s vote on Libya authorising “all necessary measures”, to corral SA’s representative into the chamber and its vote in support of the resolution. Pretoria has denied this. If it’s true that SA came sheepishly, it would be a pity, undermining what I think is principled but also strategic action on the part of SA. Here’s my analysis of SA’s Security Council votes on Libya.   

No one can rejoice at what is happening in Libya. The use of force by states acting under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution – even in defence of civilian lives – still carries with it considerable risk: of costly damage to infrastructure and livelihoods and, worse, of deaths of civilians themselves. But global leadership demands agonising choices, and as it is, the UNSC may have stalled too long, waiting until the opposition had been almost entirely overrun by Gaddafi’s loyalist forces before authorising “all necessary measures” to defend civilian lives.

 But dark and difficult though the situation in Libya is, it may be one of South Africa’s most shining moments on the international stage. South Africa was one of the ten Security Council members to support the resolution authorising use of force.  Five states abstained. And of those five, four were the founding BRIC states – a collective in which South Africa makes a home.  Those states abstaining did not wish to thwart authorisation of military measures – particularly true of Russia and China whose negative votes would have registered as vetoes – but neither did they wish to be seen as publicly endorsing such action.

South Africa might well have done likewise: a further abstention would not have endangered passage of the resolution. But global leadership also demands accountability – requiring that states take responsibility for difficult choices, not that they merely hedge their bets and seek to play all sides. South Africa’s vote would have been particularly hard because it ordinarily finds common cause with emerging powers’ scepticism for military intervention and the enhanced role it provides established powers like the US. But the resolution contains explicit language likely lobbied for by South Africa prohibiting any “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, thus referencing the AU’s concern for the territorial integrity of Libya and its rejection of any ‘foreign military intervention’.

Certainly South Africa’s Security Council persona regarding Libya seems at odds with its positions on Myanmar and Zimbabwe when it last held Security Council status. In this most recent resolution on Libya and in the previous resolution which imposed an arms embargo and asset freeze and referred the situation the International Criminal Court, it takes the view – principled and uncontroversial – that mass killings of civilians even when confined within a single state’s borders nonetheless constitute a threat to international peace and security and so warrant Security Council action. It voted against such findings on Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

South Africa would likely attempt to reconcile these positions by arguing that it gives deference to neighbouring states in their assessment of whether the situation rises to the level of international threat: clearly the Arab Leagues’ call for the enforcement of a ‘no fly zone’ indicated that the neighbourhood looked to Security Council intervention. Still, whatever the additional filter, South Africa’s votes on Libya have been fundamentally the exercise of its global leadership in defence of human rights and democracy.

South Africa has also acted strategically, ensuring not only co-ordination of the UNSC and AU actions in respect of Libya but critically salvaging an AU initiative which looked likely only to demonstrate the moribund nature of the regional grouping. As the Arab League sought to show itself a responsible global actor by calling for a no fly zone in Libya, the African Union steered clear of any such pronouncements – its Peace and Security Council instead dispatching a five head-of-state Committee to engage all sides in the Libya crisis. The composition of the mission – in particular the inclusion of Mali, Mauritania and Congo which are all financially beholden to Gaddafi – suggested robust recommendations for reform were unlikely to be forthcoming and that AU would appear only as Gaddafi’s club of cronies. In particular, Zuma’s inclusion in the mission meant that the international fallout for South Africa might be severe.

Instead last Thursday’s resolution allowed South Africa to turn its handicap to global advantage, deftly weaving the UNSC and AU pieces together and not only saving face for the AU but elevating its role, for the UNSC resolution specifically heralds the AU’s High-Level Committee to Libya and its aim of “facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.” Overnight the AU’s initiatives looked bold and prescient, not craven and concealing, and in stage-managing the transformation South Africa not so subtly underlined its global authority to AU partners.

To use an American idiom, denoting both smarts and substance, on Libya, South Africa has both done good and well.

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

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