Careful What You Wish For — Misplaced Notion Behind SA’s Bold Demand for UN Reform

While it is encouraging that South Africa embraces ‘democratisation’, there is some irony in the impulse to allow undemocratic countries to outvote democratic ones in the name of democracy.

10 May 2024 ·   4 min read

Careful What You Wish For — Misplaced Notion Behind SA’s Bold Demand for UN Reform


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South Africa bangs on at virtually any available opportunity about the need for reform of the United Nations and its institutions, especially the Security Council.

It is a popular cause and one which is championed by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres himself, albeit through rhetoric so vague it is of little value. Here is an example: “With the structural aspects of the reforms now well consolidated, it is imperative to keep the foot on the pedal to achieve the cultural change we need for greater collaboration across pillars and tangible results for people on the ground.”

Among those who routinely support calls for the urgent reform of the UN is International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor: “As part of building a better Africa and world, we are continuing with this important work. South Africa, in keeping with the Ezulwini Consensus, fully supports calls for the democratisation of the United Nations Security Council as the premier body responsible for maintaining international peace and security,” said the minister in April in presenting the ANC’s foreign policy manifesto.

While it is encouraging that South Africa embraces “democratisation”, there is some irony in the impulse to allow undemocratic countries to outvote democratic ones in the name of democracy.

The Ezulwini Consensus (so named after a valley in Eswatini, an interesting venue for a discussion on global democratisation) was a position on a more representative UN adopted by the African Union in March 2005. This consensus was followed by the Sirte Declaration (in Ghaddafi’s Libya, another democratic stand-out) three months later, which reiterated the need for at least two permanent seats and five non-permanent Security Council seats for African states.

Pandor has since said that the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict has presented an opportunity to reform the UN, not least in making it more representative, but also to protect the innocent from harm in conflicts. At an Eid event in Brixton in April, in criticising the Israeli incursions into Gaza as “arrogant breaches of international law”, Pandor said that the crisis presented an opportunity to reform the UN.

“But we have a fundamental flaw in the Security Council — the permanent five who decide what goes and what doesn’t. That has to be changed,” she said. “We also have a flaw in that despite the mandate for peace and security, when the people of Palestine were suffering the onslaught and continue to suffer it, we had no enforcement capability in the UN,” she added.

“As we discuss concrete reform, we must insist that there must be not just peace monitoring but peace enforcement capacity in the UN.” Pandor said the case for global reform has been strengthened by the additional membership of the BRICS.

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The South African position clearly reflects an agenda driven by its friends in BRICS (now including Iran) and the goal appears to be simple: reform the UN, diminish the power of the US and other (especially Western) vetoes, and improve, supposedly, the power of others of uncertain democratic lineage in deciding their own fate.

But this is a disingenuous tactic, and not a little simplistic. It makes it seem as if the world outside of the Permanent Five in the Security Council is powerless, which it is not. It also makes it seem as if the P5, which includes Russia and China, is the stumbling block to UN reform, which it might be, but less so than the pretenders themselves.

It avoids the reality of UN operations. To pass a UN Security Council Resolution, nine affirmative votes are required, and no vetoes. China and Russia will not vote against the A3 (three African members). And the A3 should surely get at least two more supporters from the E10 (elected 10) — countries like Brazil and Vietnam will vote with the Africans.

So the A3 can deny the nine affirmative votes if they work together and lobby the others. While UNSC reform is undoubtedly desirable, the A3 already has what is in practice an effective veto, including (indeed, especially) on African issues.

The problem is different. Africans should start acting as though they have the power to block anything — and use that for leverage to create positive momentum. They will also have to learn not to continue to use that power to block any Security Council scrutiny of human rights violations and conflicts in Africa — including in Eswatini, or BRICS members such as Ethiopia — but instead develop a positive agenda.

A great redeeming feature of democracies, for all their faults, is their ability to criticise everyone, including other democracies. That seldom if ever happens between authoritarians.

Africa already possesses agency, then, but prefers to play the victim card.

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It makes sense for Africa to have a voice in UN affairs, if only because historically more than half of all Security Council meetings and nearly three-quarters of its resolutions are concerned with the continent. But this means playing the game according to the rules that one develops.

While Africa, or at least the bit represented by South Africa, likes to fight against the current rules-based international order, it is difficult to get the South African government (or anyone else for that matter) to tell you what alternative rules they might like, and who is going to pay for these ideals.

Moreover, the Ezulwini Consensus — the two permanent seats with veto for Africa — would effectively ensure that other regions ask for the same, and that reform never happened since the result would be a Security Council with 10 or more veto-wielding members, which would ensure irrelevance. Be careful what you wish for — but only if reform is in fact the aim.

Meanwhile, nobody apparently stops to think that the relative growth and peace of the “Global South” over the last 30 years has no precedent. This generation has seen, driven by Asia, the largest upliftment out of poverty in human history.

Why this has not happened in much of Africa has very little to do with the UN, or remarkably, is even about Israel for that matter. 


This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

Photo: United Nations Flickr