Formed as a replacement for the beleaguered League of Nations, the United Nations (UN) celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2015. Since transition, membership of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) grew from 51 to today’s 193.
But the decision-making Security Council (UNSC) composed of 15 member-states (of which ten are non-permanent while five are permanent), remains largely unchanged.
The United States (US), China, Russia, France, and Britain (the Permanent Five or P5) wield veto power, and influence much of the UN’s work of maintaining international peace and security.
Proposals for reform continue to emerge because the UNSC still mirrors the post-WW II’s outdated global order, and excludes the say and input of majority member-states constantly on its agenda today.
This article seeks to explore South Africa’s renewed call for reform of the UNSC that includes at least two permanent seats for Africa. In so doing, the article looks at whether Pretoria’s position is or will be explicitly supported by BRIC partners (Brazil, Russia, India, and China)?
More specifically, will Russia and China ever openly endorse South Africa’s (or any BRICS country’s) bid for a permanent seat with veto power privilege?
These questions shall be answered in the context of the current state-of-affairs: BRICS solidarity demonstrated by the launch of the New Development Bank; BRICS voting patterns on UNGA/SC resolutions concerning Russia’s incursion in Ukraine; and implications of the ‘precedent’ set by Moscow for Beijing’s engagements in the East and South China sea disputes, and controversial Tibet and Taiwan territories.
The article concludes that Moscow and Beijing will soon be endorsing South Africa’s and other BRICS partners’ bids for UNSC permanent seats but without necessarily giving away veto power – a complement or extension of some P5 countries’ (waning) global influence.
That said, Pretoria and other hopefuls will have to settle for a limited reform (i.e. an expansion without alteration or abolition of veto power) first or risk lessening their chances of occupying any. Such a transformation could be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself.
BRICS THREE: UNAMBIGUOUSLY FOR REFORM
South Africa’s campaign for reform of the UNSC is not new. Reforming the Council, for South Africa, means assuring the African continent representation by at least two permanent members.
The principal rationale behind South Africa’s current campaign has been the fact that most (about 70%) of the UNSC’s issues and discussions are about the African continent, and it would be realistically imperative to have African voices represented as part of the decision-making structure.
Professor Albert Venter reminds us of South Africa’s re-admission into the international community after the milestone democratic elections of 1994. Following tumultuous years of isolation as an apartheid state and the pariah of the world, Venter writes, South Africa’s new democratic government almost “immediately joined the chorus of the non-aligned states [and] the poor ‘South’ in calling for the restructuring of the Security Council, especially with regard to including more permanent members”.
South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, called for the reform of the Council, which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) endorsed having emerged out of an undemocratic apartheid system.
According to Venter, democratic South Africa had all the intention of pushing for reform of the Council from the onset. For instance, former president Nelson Mandela addressed the UNGA in 1998 and had this to say:
“…the [United Nations], including its important Security Council, must itself go through its own process of reformation so that it serves the interests of the peoples of the world, in keeping with the purposes for which it was established.”
Today, under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, South Africa has reinvigorated its campaign to realize Mandela’s international ideal of a reformed, representative, and democratic UNSC, after years of relative inertia on the matter during the Mbeki Administration marked by quiet-diplomacy.
South Africa served as a non-permanent member of the Council on two occasions (2007-2008 and 2011-2012) and played a critical role in voting on various resolutions. Notable among them were – albeit controversial – its decision to side with China and Russia in voting against Myanmar’s (2007) draft resolution on human-rights abuses, and its incongruous approval of resolution 1973 (2011) that led to Libya’s bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Despite these controversial diplomatic gaffes occurring during its first and second tenures as the UNSC’s elected member, South Africa still maintains its stance to see the institution overhauled.
In fact, South Africa’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Baso Sangqu, remarked in 2012, that “as an elected member of the Security Council, [Pretoria] was acutely aware of the limitations that come with being a non-permanent member of this body”.
Moreover, Ambassador Sangqu pointed out that the P5 dominate the Council’s work: there is little or no consultation with members of the General Assembly, and resolutions or decisions of the Council are often drafted in small meetings, and come as fait accompli, without the necessary input of elected members and parties directly affected.
In 2013, President Zuma addressed the 68th Session of the General Assembly, and challenged the UN by proposing a target for a reformed, more inclusive, democratic and representative UNSC by 2015, the year in which the world body will be celebrating its seventieth anniversary.
South Africa’s foreign policy is underpinned by, among other objectives, the African Agenda and, as such, its effort to have Africa represented in the UNSC is consistent with the Ezulwini Consensus which represents the continent’s common position insofar as it concerns reform.
This consensus seeks, inter alia, to throw in no less than two African states (to be nominated by the African Union itself) as permanent members of the UNSC with veto power and five non-permanent seats.
Two African ‘power houses’, South Africa and Nigeria are certainly going to gear up for these permanent seats. However, other recognized emerging economies in Africa – Egypt, Algeria, and Libya for instance – who happen to be important resources’ contributors to the UN missions and operations, could contest for permanent seats as well but, hopefully, an AU facilitated nomination process could be helpful in bringing contesting countries into consensus.
It is important to note that Brazil and India (alongside Germany and Japan, collectively known as the G4) have endorsed the Ezulwini Consensus by making “recommendations for an African permanent seat”.
These countries have been advocating for permanent seats (with veto power) for themselves having realized that: “almost 70 years after the creation of the United Nations, reform of the Security Council is long overdue”.
However, they face opposition from the Italian-led coalition group called Uniting for Consensus that is tabling a much more acceptable reform package to the P5: an expansion without alteration to or abolition of veto power.
In essence, India and Brazil, under their unanimous G4 endorsement of Africa’s common position, would support South Africa – their BRICS partner – as one of Africa’s two to occupy a permanent seat.
It’s doubtless, therefore, that South Africa, Brazil, and India will support each other’s bids, considering that in geographical or regional terms, Africa and Latin America respectively are not represented in the UNSC.
BRICS TWO: FOR LIMITED REFORM OR NO REFORM AT ALL?
It goes without saying, the BRICS Three – Brazil, India, and South Africa – are certainly going all-out to realize transformation of the UNSC. But the ultimate power to reform the UNSC lies with the P5, of which China and Russia are part, that wield veto power and, with this, can prohibit any decision/resolution deemed contradictory to their national interests.
Russia and China, it appears, are caught between the paradox of reforming the UNSC and maintaining its status quo. These countries seem reluctant to change the composition of the P5 by according emerging and developing countries permanent seats, with veto power privilege.
However, they continue, although overly rhetorical, to support countries with whom they share ‘mutual and cordial relations’ while frustrating the interests of those considered as adversaries.
Sino-Russian relations draw from (neo)communism as an ideology antithetic to the West. The current state-of-affairs brought China and Russia even closer. And could soon propel them to unequivocally support countries considered as allies for permanent seats – although without granting them veto power – to the exclusion of those seen as threats to their respective regional influence and interests.
Russia deems it important to strengthen the UN’s potential through reform of the Council. Russia’s then President, Dmitry Medvedev, addressed the 64th Session of the UNGA in 2009, and noted that compromise on the formula of UNSC expansion for increased efficiency of its work is of vital importance.
Moscow, according to Alexander Nikitin , is in favour of permanent candidacies of South Africa and Egypt, as well as the G4. But, the hope of South Africa and the G4 of securing permanent seats with veto power is just wishful thinking.
As some scholars of international relations have argued, granting veto power to prospective permanent members may complicate even further the UNSC’s work with the probability of more (negative) vetoes being tabled with an increase in veto-wielders. So, “veto power should neither be expanded nor taken away”, as Nikitin suggests.
It can be argued, therefore, that Russia could soon be (explicitly) endorsing South Africa’s and/or other BRICS partners’ call for reform, although the veto question could be shelved indefinitely.
What is important for Russia at this point in time is to try and strike the right balance: appease BRICS partners whilst strategically denying them of veto power that, if granted, could be the end of Russian global influence.
Russia needs more allies now than ever before since the end of the Cold War. Nikitin notes that: “if the current G4 and Africa Group proposals were realized, the BRICS [countries] would all be represented in the Security Council, and may turn out to be a much greater counter-balance to the Western group (USA, France, UK)”.
Indeed, counter-balancing institutionalized Western dominace on international financial, peace and security matters, is part of BRICS grouping’s raison d’être.
In July 2014, BRICS launched its New Development Bank, to be headquartered in China, which is “aimed at funding infrastructure projects in developing nations…with $100 billion currency reserves pool to help countries [including member-states] forestall short-term liquidity pressures”.
This bank would also provide the Global South countries with, for example, unconditional loans and aid in stark contrast to ‘one-size-fits-all’ conditionalities imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) that left these countries with massive debts still felt today.
BRICS countries seem intent to defend one another in defiance of ‘Western domination’. Earlier this year, Moscow orchestrated a referendum in Ukraine’s Crimean region that led to the latter’s incorporation into Russia. This annexation was met with strong condemnation from the US, which encouraged its Western and European allies to impose ‘tough’ economic sanctions on Russia for its actions.
At the time of this writing, Russia reels under worse economic sanctions, and its continued incursion in eastern Ukraine sees NATO contemplating a possible (military) response.
Notably, BRICS countries’ voting patterns on UN resolutions condemning and criticizing Moscow’s actions in Ukraine signified the group’s growing solidarity.
Moscow solely vetoed a US-sponsored UNSC draft resolution that was aimed at “affirm[ing] Ukraine’s sovereignty and national borders” a day before the referendum on annexation was held.
Thirteen of the UNSC’s 15 members voted in favour of the resolution except Russia’s BRICS partner, China, which abstained. Beijing’s abstinence was either a tacit support for or condemnation of Moscow. But Chinese officials preferred “a ‘balanced’ solution to the conflict within a framework of law and order”.
The BRICS Three plus China abstained from a subsequent (non-binding) UNGA resolution “criticizing the Crimean referendum”, according to Zachary Keck.
For this reason, South Africa and some of its BRICS partners, were hypocritical to have overlooked espoused foreign policy principles: respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
Whilst the West regarded Russia’s action as a violation of these principles, South Africa, as Elizabeth Sidiropoulos succinctly puts it, maintained that “parties to conflict [in eastern Ukraine] sit together to negotiate a settlement”.
South Africa, thus, favoured a diplomatic solution to the conflict but this, in some quarters, suggested that the country only preferred a neutral position so as to neither hurt its relations with Russia nor erode the credibility of its entrenched foreign policy underpinnings.
So, with the growing BRICS solidarity in sight, not forgetting the group’s joint condemnation of Australia’s suggested intention of not inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 2014 Group of Twenty (G20) Summit, Russia will inevitably have to stickby, and perhaps try to appease, its partners in return of their unflinching support in the future.
Akin to other P5 members’ banal tactics, Moscow could overtly support Pretoria’s bid with or without veto power but certainly without charting the way forward.
It is important to note, as Sidiropoulos wrote, that Russia and South Africa started prioritizing their relations after the latter officially joined BRICS in 2010.
Indeed, the two countries have been meeting more often for bilateral ‘strategic’ interests: South Africa’s President Zuma most recently (September 2014) visited Russia for a meeting to “discuss trade opportunities”.
On the one hand, Moscow seeks to attract trade and investment in a bid to stabilize its economy amidst (crippling?) economic sanctions imposed by the West. And, on the other hand, Pretoria wants “support for establishing the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises” in the interim until the African Standby Force (ASF), an institution of the broader African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), is operationalized.
China is also supportive of engaging in UNSC reform but remains practically unenthusiastic. In 2009, Ambassador Zhang Yesui delivered a statement at the UNGA meeting in which he made known China’s support for “necessary and reasonable reform of the Security Council…to increase representation of the developing countries, particularly African countries”.
But China is also worried about expanding permanent seats and granting veto power to possible candidates over fears of having its growing international influence weakened and always in check.
David Shambaugh wrote that China has “made it clear that it will not countenance [any G4 country] gaining this status [of becoming a permanent member of the UNSC]”. China, therefore, is opposed to the idea some of her Asian neighbours occupying UNSC permanent seats.
Beijing and Washington are known global rivals. And in 2010, President Barack Obama announced, much to the consternation of Chinese leaders, that the US will endorse India’s bid. Addressing the Indian Parliament on his three day visit, Obama said: America seeks an “efficient, effective, credible and legitimate” UN, and “in the years to come, I look forward to a reformed [UNSC] that includes India as a permanent member”.
Some regarded this as a symbolic gesture aimed at reassuring New Delhi of Washington’s support. However, no mention was made of specific timeframes and whether or not this permanent seat comes with veto power because reform decisions rest not only with the US but the UN in its entirety.
Furthermore, Obama’s term in office will soon come to an end and it remains to be seen if the succeeding Administration will prioritize reform of the UNSC.
China has voiced its opposition to the inclusion of India because the latter would keep its rising influence in the region in check, and possibly dilute its global posture. But India could have it easy if it considers China’s proposal: delink its bid from that of Japan to get China’s support.
In addition, China is being cautious towards Japan, for they have been involved in enduring territorial disputes over the islands of Senkaku/Diaoyudao.
Presumably, China doesn’t support the G4, to which Brazil and India belong. But geopolitically speaking, China could endorse Brazil’s separate bid instead of India’s or Japan’s. Because the latter two countries could contrive a way to shift the balance-of-power in Asia under the tutelage of Washington (an offshore balancer) that strives to lessen, if not end, China’s growing global influence.
China will certainly back South Africa’s bid for a permanent seat. From a Sino-South Africa economic relations’ perspective, Pretoria has been the conduit through which Beijing accesses the African market. For this reason, China will therefore stop at nothing to hint on South Africa when endorsing Africa’s common position.
Relations between the two are often described as ‘mutually-beneficial’ in economic terms – that is certainly indisputable. But, as highlighted earlier in this article, pragmatic economic and security considerations often relegate democratic and human-rights matters, for which they are intended to address.
As alluded to earlier, Pretoria’s vote against a Myanmar draft resolution condemning human-rights abuses was a blatant disregard for democratic values codified in South Africa’s Constitution.
And on overlooking Russia’s evident violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Pretoria (by siding with Beijing) in abstinence, brought into question its professed anti-(neo)colonial/imperial rhetoric.
As for Beijing, abstinence points to a gradual ditching of its Non-interference Policy championed by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) as part of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence active since the mid-1950s.
Abstaining under the pretext of finding a ‘balanced solution’ to the Ukraine crisis, China’s decision was informed in part by its regional encounters: the East and South China Sea disputes, and Taiwan and Tibet separatism.
James Holmes offers a valuable insight:that a big authoritarian state resorts to the use of force if and when nonviolent means become indecisive in acquiring territory it regards as its rightful property. Russia’s precedent, therefore, could see China opting to “use force against Taiwan… [and adversaries] in East and South China Sea” territorial disputes in the future.
Finally, Beijing will support Pretoria’s UNSC ambitions because the latter, reportedly over fears of jeopardizing its (economic) relations with the former, denied the Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a visa thrice in five years. The Dalai Lama was due to attend the 14th Summit World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Cape Town, South Africa but withdrew his application while it was undergoing due process.
Tibet, like Taiwan, is regarded as a separatists-ruled territory in defiance of one-China policy, and any country that hosts the Dalai Lama risks severing its relations (if any meaningful exist) with China – in this case, South Africa’s biggest trade partner.
In sum, it can be deduced from reform proposals that Brazil, India, and South Africa share a common goal although sometimes holding divergent views and positions individually.
Notwithstanding this divergence, Brazil and India will back their close BRICS partner, South Africa, in occupying one permanent seat for Africa.
Should two-thirds majority of the UNGA and the UNSC (with unanimous P5 approval) ever reach a consensus on reform, South Africa will definitely secure a seat because of not only having good bilateral ties with China and Russia respectively but also because it is a global role player in multilateral bodies like the G20, the AU, and the UN for example.
But reform is exceedingly elusive, and if endorsed, Pretoria would only be backed rhetorically for now. After all, any P5 member can single-handedly override any decision to its disliking irrespective of an overwhelming support by member-states.
To be a formidable force against western pre-eminence, BRICS group will have to not only play a critical role in international commercial matters but also ensure that it keeps up with the West’s military and security dominance.
Moscow and Beijing can improve the BRICS group’s overall clout if their partners are integrated into the UNSC. All P5 members could agree to a limited amendments to the UN Charter as long as the veto power question is shelved.
For South Africa and Africa, as well as Brazil and India (in the G4), securing permanent seats with veto power, will prove twice as hard compared to expanding the UNSC as proposed by Uniting for Consensus coalition.
Strategically, a group of states can advocate for and acquire permanent seats first, and then campaign for veto power or its elimination. Neither Russia nor China is prepared to approve of any reform package that bestows relative power to real and perceived rivals.
With everything said, radical transformation will not happen anytime soon because even if any P5 country’s political, economic, or military power wanes, as in the cases of France and Britain, veto power seldom becomes obsolete – as said, it is a complement or an extension of available power or the lack thereof.
Tshepho Mokwele is a graduate of International Relations from South Africa and writes in his personal capacity.
@Tshepho_Mokwele on Twitter.