[OPINION] SA's critical role in UN Security Council decisions

It is a depressing truism of modern, multilateral diplomacy that after a two-year term as a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council, a country invariably ends up with more enemies than when it started. South Africa has twice proved the veracity of this.

In its first rotating term on the UN powerhouse between 2007 and 2008, the South African government - still in its heady days of President Nelson Mandela - appeared insensitive to human rights violations in Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

Eager to avoid a similar accusation in its second term between 2011 and 2012, South Africa voted for a resolution supporting “all necessary measures to protect civilians on the ground” from aerial against attacks by the forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. This led to military action that contributed to Gaddafi’s overthrow and killing, which set off violence and insecurity from which the country still has not recovered.

South African protests that it never actually supported military action against Gaddafi drew chortles from observers who said it was dangerously naive of the South Africans not to realise their vote for a no-fly zone over Libya could possibly lead to anything else.

South Africa’s newly-acquired partners Brazil, Russia, India and China - all forming BRICS - abstained in that vote.

Barak Obama’s US government reiterated that South Africa had merely done the right thing. This was cold comfort for the African nations who insisted that Libya should have been left for the AU to sort out. The Africans saw fit to put South Africa up for a third term in the diplomatic engine room.

Will South Africa be able to parlay this into eventually becoming the permanent African member on a reformed UN Security Council?

This will be the call of not so much of fellow Africans but of the heavy hitters who would have to agree to the reforms. The signs so far are rather ominous.

South Africa has sat so firmly on the fence on the fraught Ukraine issue that it has iron its soul. In the year ahead, the Western powers on the Security Council are bound to take a tougher line against Russian aggression aimed at its western neighbour and its annexation of Crimea.

They will be looking for consistency from South Africa that has steadfastly cited moral grounds for standing against Moroccan aggression in north Africa and its invasion of Western Sahara. European diplomats say South Africa’s decision to abstain in the UN General Assembly vote on human rights violations in Myanmar is disappointing.

There has been a stronger language from Asian countries. They are comparing South Africa’s refusal to vote in favour of human rights protection for Rohingya refugees with what they call discredited Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s abetting of genocide.

Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu has signalled there will be change in this stance and they are all eagerly awaiting the new position. They will also look to South Africa to alter it abstention and actually support UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu’s call for an end to the use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Doing this would put South Africa at odds with Russia as it shows an increasing tendency to stay on-side with its BRICS partner.

In the vote for the new Interpol chief, for example, South Africa withdrew its candidate for the post and threw its support behind Russian Alexander Prokopchuk who eventually lost to South Korean Kim Yong Yan. At stake over the next two years is more than merely irritating Western friends.

South Africa’s contributions and votes on the 15-nation Security Council will bring it directly into the cross-hairs of Donald Trump, whose vengeful petulance easily exceeds his short attention span.

If he doesn’t like something South Africa does, it is easily within the realms of possibility that it might be made to pay by losing its favorable access to US markets via the American Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

The Saharawi people, living under Moroccan occupation for 43 years, will be grateful for having South Africa on the Security Council. Sisulu has promised South Africa will use its position to press for self-determination for Western Sahara. By implication, this means getting Morocco to quit the territory.

So, however, we look at it for the next two years, South Africa will be playing high-stakes poker at the biggest game in town.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish.