Zuma: No Diplomatic Coup in Libya

May 31, 2011

Considering SA’s seat on the UN Security Council and its support for the two Libyan resolutions (the first imposing a travel ban and assets freeze  and making referral of the situation to the ICC and the second authorising all necessary measures which means force, although South African officials sometimes pretend that that’s the first they’ve heard of it) and SA’s championing of the African Union (strategic given that it needs to carry this constituency globally); it wasn’t too far fetched to hope that Zuma might be a global pointsman in resolving the Libyan crisis, and that his visit to Gaddafi might  result in some diplomatic coup. Sadly he’s home without even the suggestion that he might have secured peace in our time.  That might have everything to do with the obduracy of Gaddafi. But if SA wants to be a key emerging player on the international field it will have to come up with some key plays.

See the letter to President Zuma written by SALC’s director and published today in the Business Day in edited form.

Dear President Zuma,

I am sitting in a meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil surrounded by other civil society representatives from emerging powers here to discuss the issue of foreign policy and human rights. If there were a naughty corner to be made to sit in, or lines to write, I as a South African would be made to do so. Emerging from the meeting is a consensus that South Africa is an irresponsible international actor not only as against established powers, but also as against the other emerging powers.

When I have suggested that in certain aspects of its foreign policy, South Africa has acted similarly to Latin American states like Mexico, Brazil or Argentina I have been told in no uncertain terms by the advocacy directors of international agencies that such comparison is unfounded: the latter may sometimes be confused but for the most part conduct themselves credibly; South Africa is just bad.

South African officials, they say, act emotionally in international forums — quite an accusation, you’ll appreciate, from human rights types. As example they cite South African officials’ inclination to make nonsensical allusion to the absence of any UN condemnation of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade when explaining why UN Human Rights Council focus on the violations in Syria is unfairly selective.

The Brazilian representatives smile serenely, expressing some exasperation with their country’s occasional inconsistency on human rights issues, but flush with happy confidence, like their country, they revel in Brazil doing both good and well. The Egyptians, monopolising all attention with their tales of fresh transition and hopes of what might be, only underline the hearts South Africa has lost. I look to my Nigerian counterparts for succour, hoping we might form an African alliance. But they don’t bother disguising their resentment at how South Africa has sold them out internationally, its pretensions to continental dominance and its shoddy treatment of other Africans. They won’t even buy MTN phones they say, such is the antipathy for our country.

And now comes the news that you’ll be travelling to Libya to meet with Gaddafi. You’ll imagine the eye-rolling that has provoked among representatives of international policy think-tanks gathered here. There is only slight less incredulity than were the President of Mali ostensibly off to negotiate the peace in Libya.

The indicators pointed to of our strange shape-shifting from benign to malign global actor are multiple and varied: for example, our inexplicable support for Gbagbo in the Cote d’Ivoire crisis when the rest of the world and more important still, the West African states, recognised Ouattara as rightful leader; our repeated willingness to sell out on lesbian and gay rights in UN forums despite key constituents in the Global South, such as several Latin American states, championing their cause and our own very clear domestic constitutional commitments.

And the cause of our metamorphosis from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde of the global order? The speculation is endless: That the corruption and nepotism bedevilling our domestic politics impairs our international judgement too, particularly as regards our interests in other African countries; that the trauma of our past constrains us to act short-sightedly and immaturely, in contrast to other members of the Global South.

No doubt you’re aware of these dynamics and may be blithely unconcerned. But were you to pull off Libya it would be a big coup, a chance even to reset the clock.

So I’m hoping you’ll engage with Gaddafi clearly within the framework imposed by the two UN Security Council resolutions — setting out specific obligations for Gaddafi as to ending the violence but also clear duties for South Africa as a principal actor in initiating and needing to enforce these resolutions. There can be none of the equivocation about the resolutions that you’ve shown when addressing diverse domestic constituencies. And given that South Africa jointly made the referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) there can be no back-stepping as has been the case with the Darfur referral or the Kenyan indictments.

Instead, it will have to be pressed on Gaddafi that his best chances lie in negotiations with his countrymen; that the egregious violence against Libyan civilians and now reports of appalling systematic rape perpetrated by his forces must cease immediately. Gaddafi has called the world’s bluff too many times, promised ceasefires that never materialise. You’ll need to insist on credible demonstration that his forces will be called back, that their violence will stop.

Likely you’ll have David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy on speed-dial. Given that they’re picking up the cost of the international community’s military campaign in Libya, they’ll understand above all that a drawn-out military intervention benefits no-one. They’ll need to explain to the rebels that their rejection of negotiations until such time as Gaddafi has gone may be understandable but is not practically workable. Someone has to negotiate Gaddafi’s exit and as the international community’s options are fairly limited given the ICC referral, the rebels will need to start offering some incentives for Gaddafi’s going unless all of Libya is to be brought to its knees.

No question, it is a difficult undertaking. Can you pull it off, President Zuma? For yourself as a statesman? For us as a nation?

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and writes in her personal capacity.

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