I am sitting in a meeting in São Paulo, Brazil, surrounded by other civil society representatives from emerging powers, here to discuss foreign policy and human rights. If there was a naughty corner to sit in, or lines to write, I as a South African would be made to do so. Emerging from the meeting is a consensus that SA is an irresponsible international actor — against established powers and the other emerging powers.
When I have suggested that in certain aspects of its foreign policy, SA has acted similarly to Latin American states such as Mexico, Brazil or Argentina, I have been told by the advocacy directors of international agencies that such a comparison is unfounded: the latter may sometimes be confused but for the most part conduct themselves credibly; SA is just bad.
South African officials, they say, act emotionally in international forums. As an example, they cite South African officials’ inclination to make nonsensical allusion to the absence of any United Nations (UN) condemnation of the transatlantic slave trade when explaining why the UN Human Rights Council’s focus on violations in Syria is unfairly selective.
The Brazilian representatives smile serenely, expressing some exasperation with their country’s occasional inconsistency on human rights issues, but revel in Brazil doing well. The Egyptians, monopolising all attention with their tales of fresh transition and hopes of what might be, only underline the hearts SA has lost. I look to my Nigerian counterparts for succour, hoping we might form an African alliance. But they don’t bother disguising their resentment of how SA has sold them out internationally, its pretensions to continental dominance and its shoddy treatment of other Africans.
And now comes the news that President Jacob Zuma was to travel to Libya to meet Muammar Gaddafi, provoking eye- rolling among representatives of international policy think-tanks gathered here.
They point to multiple and varied indicators of our shape-shifting from benign to malign global actor: for example, SA’s support for Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivorian crisis, when the rest of the world and West African states recognised Alassane Ouattara as rightful leader; and SA’s repeated willingness to sell out on lesbian and gay rights in UN forums despite key constituents in the Global South, such as several Latin American states, championing their cause and our own constitutional commitments.
And the cause of our metamorphosis from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde of the global order? The speculation is endless, and includes that corruption and nepotism in our domestic politics impairs our international judgment, particularly regarding our interests in other African countries; that the trauma of our past constrains us to act shortsightedly and immaturely.
No doubt Zuma is aware of these dynamics and may be unconcerned. But were he to pull off Libya, it would be a coup, a chance even to reset the clock.
So I’m hoping Zuma has engaged with Gaddafi clearly within the framework imposed by the two UN Security Council resolutions — setting out specific obligations for Gaddafi to end the violence, and clear duties for SA as a principal actor in initiating and needing to enforce these resolutions. There can be none of the equivocation about the resolutions that Zuma has shown when addressing diverse domestic constituencies. And given that SA jointly made the referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC), there can be no back-stepping — as has been the case with the Darfur referral or the Kenyan indictments.
Instead, it should have been impressed upon Gaddafi that his best chances lie in negotiations with his countrymen; that the egregious violence against Libyan civilians and now reports of systematic rape perpetrated by his forces must cease immediately. Gaddafi has called the world’s bluff too many times. Zuma will have had to insist on credible demonstration that his forces will be called back, that their violence will stop.
A drawn-out military intervention benefits no one. While the rebels’ rejection of negotiations until such time as Gaddafi has gone may be understandable, it is not practical. Someone has to negotiate Gaddafi’s exit and, as the international community’s options are fairly limited given the ICC referral, the rebels will need to start offering some incentives for Gaddafi’s departure — unless all of Libya is to be brought to its knees.
It is a difficult undertaking. Can you pull it off, President Zuma? For yourself as a statesman? For us as a nation?
- Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.