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July 28th, 2011

South Africa’s about-turn on Libya: Is speaking with the AU/BRIC majority defending the indefensible?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Editor

July 28th, 2011

South Africa’s about-turn on Libya: Is speaking with the AU/BRIC majority defending the indefensible?

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Candice Moore is a PhD Student in LSE’s Department of International Relations. Here she looks at why South Africa chose to support the West’s intervention in Libya, particularly given their anti imperialist stance toward military interventions and US foreign policy. This is an extract of an article that originally appeared on the LSE IDEAS Africa blog.

On 17 March, 2011, South Africa joined a number of other permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in adopting UNSC Resolution 1973. The resolution authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in the escalating civil conflict in Libya, and was ultimately implemented by NATO, with controversial consequences. South Africa’s decision came as a surprise to the country’s foreign policy observers because it contradicted a number of key tenets of post-Apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy.

These include non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, (especially African states); a reticence to agree to the use of force in resolving international crises, especially in the absence of a cease-fire and host government approval; and, its recent (under former president, Thabo Mbeki) proclivity for obstructing UNSC resolutions aimed at military action in, or even strongly worded resolutions on, events in third countries not considered to be threats to international peace and security.

This prompted the question why South Africa had opted to support the resolution, rather than simply abstaining from voting, especially in light of its noted anti-imperialist stance toward military interventions and US foreign policy. Notwithstanding the questionable implementation of the resolution, it was highly unusual for South Africa to vote in favour of its adoption.

Not much regarding the background of this decision has come to light. Instead government officials now register their regret over the manner in which the resolution has been implemented, and their own lack of clarity over how a no-fly zone would be imposed at the time of supporting its passage (although the inclusion of the term ‘Chapter VII’ in the resolution may have offered clues).

This curious incident has, as a by-product, raised questions on two key aspects of the conflict: the role of continental instruments, and major continental powers, in its resolution; and, the broader question of the legitimacy of NATO actions in Libya.

South Africa’s change of heart first became evident at the BRICs Leaders Meeting hosted by China in April, when the country revised its position, and along with other leading nations from the developing world and Russia, voiced its opposition to the use of force in Libya.

This represented a discomfiting moment for South Africa, as it was the only one among the five  – for the current period all represented in the UN Security Council – to have voted in favour of the no-fly zone in March.

Since then, the South African and African National Congress political leadership, including President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Mothlanthe, and Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, have stuck to the line of seeking a ‘political solution’ to the conflict, and calling for a halt to the NATO campaign.

South Africa’s initial decision at the UN, in favour of Resolution 1973, took place within a wider context of notable African Union slow-footedness regarding the growing levels of violence and civil discord in Libya following the early demonstrations in Benghazi in February.

Granted, the grouping condemned the government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters one week after the start of the uprising; established an ad hoc High Level Committee on Libya, and produced a ‘Road Map’ on 10 March. The latter occurred some weeks after a number of other, more decisive, diplomatic steps had been taken by various sections of the international community, however.

The Arab League had suspended Libya in February, and Western leaders issued strident calls for Qaddafi to leave. Qaddafi, one of the masterminds and chief financial backer of a renascent, if utopian, Pan-Africanism (he proposed a ‘United States of Africa’) at the turn of the twenty-first century, was always going to be an unlikely target of African criticism or interference, even while his forces sought to ruthlessly suppress the growing civilian protests against his rule.

Yet, the African position is not monolithic, as a number of African states have turned their backs on Qaddafi, while not necessarily supporting the NATO bombings. Prominent among these is the West African ‘sea of tranquility’, Senegal, which at the end of May granted recognition to the Transitional National Council (TNC), the political representative of the Libyan rebels.

More recently, on 8 June, Mauritania, a member of the AU Heads of State Panel on Libya along with Mali, Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville, stated that it is necessary for Qaddafi to leave, exposing faultlines in the AU’s position. At the end of June it was reported, following an AU summit in Pretoria, that Qaddafi had finally been omitted from the body’s plans to resolve the conflict with proposed peace talks.

There is the feeling of indignation among prominent African observers at the manner in which the African Union has apparently been undermined by the NATO campaign. Yet, two issues remain overlooked.

The first is the patent incapacity of the organisation to launch credible military campaigns, especially those of the kind required to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’. The two best-resourced regional bodies, ECOWAS and SADC, have no jurisdiction over Libya and would therefore have found it difficult to mount arguments in favour of involvement. While Nigeria did recently express a willingness to intervene in Ivory Coast to unseat the recalcitrant Laurent Gbagbo, South Africa declined a request to dispatch troops to Somalia to boost the flagging African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Second, there is no reason to believe that the AU would enjoy any greater measure of legitimacy than NATO currently does, given Qaddafi’s colourful history as chief financial patron of the organization. As has so often been the case in the history of conflict between African states and their people, the rebels and the African Union sit on opposite sides of the conflict, with any hint of a diplomatic or political solution to the crisis (the AU’s preference) seen as tantamount to a continuation of business as usual under Qaddafi by the rebels.

This is a point on which the rebels and NATO agree seamlessly. Hence the failure of AU overtures and attempts at brokering a resolution to the crisis. To date, the AU has steered clear of according the rebels diplomatic status, taking care not to cut itself off from Qaddafi, while at the same time, including the TNC in discussions with its ad hoc Committee on the crisis which meets at Ministerial level.

Read the Candice More’s full blog on the LSE IDEAS Africa blog.

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