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South Africa got it right this time in the UN Security Council

In the midst of escalating violence in Syria, the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 19 July 2012 failed to reach consensus on an appropriate international response to contain the crisis. A draft resolution tabled by the United Kingdom (UK), with the support of other western countries in the Council, failed to gain the endorsement of the UNSC after Russia and China predictably vetoed it. 

The draft resolution was affirmed by 11 of the Council’s members, while South Africa joined Pakistan in abstaining from the vote. While Pretoria’s voting decisions in the Council have in recent times been questionable, its decision not to vote on a text that would have threatened sanctions against the Syrian government can hardly be faulted and demonstrates that it can take independent and rational positions without the influence of the permanent members of the Council (P5 – US, UK, France, Russia and China).

One of the negative externalities of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for South Africa is the bad publicity generated around the country’s foreign policy decisions, given that the events coincided with its return to the Security Council. South Africa’s voting behaviour in the UNSC on crises stemming from the so-called Arab Spring has been the subject of intense controversy both within and outside the country. 

Its role in the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya, as well as its position on an earlier Council vote that had also failed to approve a draft resolution on the protracted Syrian crisis were criticised for displaying inconsistency and departing from the ideals of its foreign policy.

Critics even alleged that South Africa’s decisions in these instances were a reflection of an inability by the Zuma administration to resist pressure from either the western permanent members of the Council (the US, the UK and France) or its fellow BRICS partners (Russia and China).

South Africa’s response to the Arab uprisings in its capacity as a temporary member of the UNSC may have displayed some shortcomings in the past, but I think its decision to abstain from the 19 July vote on the UK-sponsored draft resolution was a sound one, given the current dynamics of the Syrian conflict and the attitude of the P5.

To make sense of South Africa’s abstention, it is prudent to examine it within the context of two of the many facets of the Syrian conflict; that is, the evolution of the internal power struggle between pro- and anti-government forces on the one hand, and the realpolitik of the Great Powers in the UNSC on the other hand.

Had it voted in favour of the draft resolution, as some have suggested, it would have essentially encouraged the tendency by the western permanent members of the UNSC (P3) to abuse the decision-making processes of the Council.

First, although the crisis in Syria cannot be dissociated from the wave of popular protests that have spread across the MENA region, it has since escalated into a full-blown armed struggle, with both the Syrian government and the opposition now fighting for their survival.

It cannot be denied that the brutality of the Syrian government contributed in radicalising the opposition, neither can one contest the fact that a large part of the violence and casualties stem from the government’s disproportionate use of force in an attempt to neutralise the opposition.

Even so, the growing violence against President Assad’s government and its supporters, as evidenced in the recent attack that killed top government officials, coupled with evidence of terrorist involvement in the fighting, constitute a new dynamic in the conflict that cannot be ignored when fashioning any international response.

At this stage of the conflict, measures to de-escalate the hostilities cannot be based on considerations of which side initiated the violence or is responsibility for most casualties. Seeing that both the government and the opposition are now locked down in an existential armed struggle, it is only logical that any impartial international pressure intended to contain the violence and create space for a political negotiation should be applied on both sides.

Paragraph 6 of the UK’s draft resolution correctly captured this logic, demanding ‘all parties in Syria, including the opposition, [to] immediately cease all armed violence in all its forms, thereby creating an atmosphere conducive to a political transition’. Regrettably though, when it came to threatening further UN action in the event of non-compliance, Paragraph 13 of the text limited responsibility to the Syrian government. In this ‘omission’ lies the primary justification for South Africa’s abstention.

Had it voted in favour of the draft resolution, as some have suggested, it would have essentially encouraged the tendency by the western permanent members of the UNSC (P3) to abuse the decision-making processes of the Council.

By demanding compliance exclusively from the Syrian authorities even when it acknowledges the presence of other belligerents, it is evident that the draft resolution is not founded on sound principle but rather reflects the biased position of its sponsors in the conflict. So, why is South Africa justified in not joining Russia and China to vote against the draft resolution?

A South African vote against the draft resolution would have come with the potential of being misconstrued as solidarity with the position of Russia, whose objection to the text was motivated by its own national interest rather than a commitment to a principled international response.

In its determination to protect the Syrian government, Russia remains opposed to any punitive measures from the UN against the Syrian authorities, irrespective of whether they are also applied to the opposition.

Thus, by choosing to abstain rather than vote against the draft resolution, South Africa adopted a balanced position that did not only object to the bias of the P3 but also served to disapprove of Russia’s inflexibility, which is no less inimical to the search for an impartial and effective international response to the Syrian crisis.

Fritz Nganje is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD)

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