NO ONE can rejoice at what is happening in Libya. The use of force by states acting under United Nations Security Council resolution — even in defence of civilian lives — still carries with it considerable risk: of costly damage to infrastructure and livelihoods and, worse, of deaths of civilians themselves. But global leadership demands agonising choices and as it is, the council may have stalled too long, waiting until the opposition was almost entirely overrun by Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalist forces before authorising “all necessary measures” to defend civilian lives.
But difficult though the situation in Libya is, it may be one of SA’s most shining moments on the international stage. SA was one of the 10 Security Council members to support the resolution authorising force. Five states abstained. And of those five, four were the founding Bric states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) — a collective in which SA makes a home. Those states abstaining did not wish to thwart the authorisation of military measures, but neither did they wish to be seen as publicly endorsing such action.
SA might well have done likewise: a further abstention would not have endangered passage of the resolution. But global leadership also demands accountability — requiring that states take responsibility for difficult choices, not that they merely hedge their bets and seek to play all sides. SA’s vote would have been particularly hard because it ordinarily finds common cause with emerging powers’ scepticism about military intervention and the enhanced role it provides established powers such as the US. But the resolution contains explicit language likely lobbied for by SA prohibiting any “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, thus referencing the African Union’s (AU’s) concern for the territorial integrity of Libya and its rejection of any “foreign military intervention”.
Certainly SA’s Security Council persona regarding Libya seems at odds with its positions on Myanmar and Zimbabwe when it last held Security Council status. In this most recent resolution on Libya and in the previous resolution, which imposed an arms embargo and asset freeze and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court, it takes the view — principled and uncontroversial — that mass killings of civilians even when confined within a single state’s borders constitute a threat to international peace and security and so warrant s ecurity c ouncil action. It voted against such findings on Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
SA would likely attempt to reconcile these positions by arguing it gives deference to neighbouring states in their assessment of whether the situation rises to the level of international threat: clearly the Arab League’s call for the enforcement of a no-fly zone indicated that the neighbourhood looked to Security Council intervention. Still, SA’s votes on Libya have been fundamentally the exercise of its global leadership in defence of human rights and democracy.
SA has also acted strategically, ensuring not only co-ordination of Security Council and AU actions in respect of Libya but critically salvaging an AU initiative, which looked likely only to demonstrate the moribund nature of the regional grouping. As the Arab League sought to show itself a responsible global actor by calling for a no-fly zone in Libya, the AU steered clear of any such pronouncements — its Peace and Security Council instead dispatching a five head-of-state committee to engage all sides in the Libya crisis. The composition of the mission — in particular the inclusion of Mali, Mauritania and Congo, which are all financially beholden to Gaddafi — suggested robust recommendations for reform were unlikely to be forthcoming and that the AU would appear to be Gaddafi’s club of cronies. In particular, President Jacob Zuma’s inclusion meant the international fallout for SA might be severe.
Instead, last Thursday’s resolution allowed SA to turn its handicap to global advantage, deftly weaving the Security Council and AU pieces together, saving face for the AU and elevating its role — the council resolution specifically heralds the AU’s high-level committee and its aim of “facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a … sustainable solution.” Overnight, the AU’s initiatives looked bold and prescient, not craven and concealing, and in managing the transformation, SA underlined its global authority to AU partners.
To use a US idiom, denoting both smarts and substance, on Libya, SA has both done good and well.
– Fritz is the Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.