THIS week, the United Nations (UN) Security Council again considers the issue of Zimbabwe.
Members of the Security Council concerned at the situation have reportedly been planning to wait for SA’s departure from the council in January next year before attempting again to address the issue. But recent developments — intensified violence, spiraling abductions and disappearances of human rights activists and political opponents, a ferocious cholera epidemic — have meant they cannot afford such an approach.
Nonetheless, their planned approach is confirmation of just how critical SA has been to sabotaging UN efforts to address the Zimbabwean crisis.
That is as many suspected. In July this year, a council resolution that would have found Zimbabwe a “threat to international peace and security”, allowing the council to adopt its toughest measures against Zimbabwe — though this particular resolution only sought to impose targeted sanctions against Robert Mugabe and several of his henchmen — was defeated by Russia’s and China’s use of their veto powers, despite a large majority of council members voting in favour.
But it was SA that led off debate of the resolution by council members, urging defeat. The insistence by SA’s representative, Dumisani Kumalo, that the African Union’s and Southern African Development Community’s sponsorship of the Zimbabwean mediation process obliged SA to vote against the resolution may have been misleading as to how much an instigator — and not a passive follower — SA was.
It was left to the representative of Vietnam — who voted against the resolution, alongside Russia, China, Libya and SA — to let the cat out of the bag. Explaining that Vietnam was of the view that the situation in Zimbabwe “does not constitute a threat to regional or international peace and security”, he elaborated that this view was shared “especially” by “the neighbours of Zimbabwe”. The only neighbour round the table was SA.
SA was far less circumspect in directly addressing the issue of threats to international peace and security when the council sought to adopt a resolution on Burma last year. Then, Kumalo explained that SA had three reasons for opposing the resolution, but that the “most fundamental reason for us” is that the situation does not present a “threat to international peace and security”. The South African view prevailed, but again only because of the Russian and Chinese veto.
Thus, on the two occasions during its term on the Security Council when resolutions have been defeated by undemocratic means — by use of the veto — SA has voted together with those exercising the veto. That would be troubling enough. But it is disingenuous to maintain, as SA does, that internal instability and massive domestic human rights violations are not capable of presenting threats to international peace and security. Past resolutions on Haiti, Sierra Leone and Somalia all show that this is not the council’s practice.
And the real irony, and sadness, is that SA, more than any other state, knows this. In the Cold War years, when the Security Council was all but defunct and resolutions hardly ever passed, still there came agreement that SA demanded action through council resolution. In an unprecedented development in 1977, the council determined that SA constituted a “threat to the maintenance of international peace and security”, imposing an arms embargo on the country.
And while the resolution contains reference to SA’s military build-up and acts of aggression, it is clear that it was the South African government’s “resort to massive violence against and killings of the African people, including schoolchildren and students and others opposing racial discrimination” — entirely domestic violations but no less disruptive of the peace — that compelled the determination.
But if SA, indirectly, once prompted historic action on the council in defence of human rights, it now looks only to undermine such efforts. It has a month to redeem itself. It should do so on Zimbabwe.
- Fritz is a visiting associate professor at Fordham Law School.