South Africa Calls for U.N. Probe Into NATO’s Libya Mission

By Patrick Goodenough | January 6, 2012 | 5:09 AM EST

South African ambassador to the U.N. Baso Sangqu speaks to reporters following a Security Council meeting on Libya last October. South Africa supported the initial resolution authorizing military intervention but quickly moved to opposing the NATO operation that followed. (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

( – Assuming the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month, South Africa has called for a U.N. investigation into NATO’s air campaign in Libya, complaining that it had exceeded its mandate by moving from enforcing a no-fly zone to promoting the downfall of the Gaddafi regime.

The move provides another foretaste of the challenges Western permanent members of the Security Council would confront were the world body’s top table to be expanded to accommodate emerging powers.

Currently the Security Council comprises five permanent members – the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia – and 10 temporary ones who serve two-year terms each. A handful of leading emerging countries – South Africa, Brazil, India, Japan, Nigeria and Germany among them – aspire for permanent seats in an envisaged enlarged council.

Last fall three of them who were holding temporary seats – India, Brazil and South Africa – declined to support a Western-led resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s violent crackdown on opponents. Although Russia and China vetoed the resolution anyway, their decision to abstain rather than back the measure weakened the Western attempt to send a strong and unified signal to Syria.

Now South Africa is again using its non-permanent membership to challenge Western policies, this time in Libya.

The Security Council last March passed a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Brazil and India abstained, along with Russia, China and Germany. South Africa voted in favor.

Acting under resolution 1973, U.S., British and French forces launched airstrikes on Libyan targets on March 19, and military command of the mission was taken over by NATO five days later.

At the beginning of April the U.S. moved to a support role, and NATO – although not all of its members – continued the operation until the fighting between Libyan armed forces and rebels ended in late October, following Gaddafi’s death.

South African U.N. ambassador Baso Sangqu said in New York this week that his country had backed resolution 1973 to ensure that lives were protected, saying that the measure had authorized a no-fly zone and not “regime change or anything else.”

Sangqu, who was speaking in his capacity as South African representative not that of Security Council president, told reporters that it had become clear that NATO airstrikes had not been “that precise.”

He called for the U.N. to probe alleged human rights abuses in Libya by all sides involved in the conflict, including and especially NATO, and said the International Criminal Court should conduct investigations in any cases of gross violations.

“Impunity cannot be selective,” he added.

During the Libyan crisis, South Africa quickly moved from supporting resolution 1973 to criticizing the NATO mission. Over the summer it used its position to hold up for a number of weeks a push by the U.S. and Britain for the Security Council to release millions of dollars’ worth of frozen Libyan assets and hand them over to leaders of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.

Some analysts attributed that stance to the ruling ANC’s historical links to the Gaddafi regime – Libya was a key supporter of the movement during its decades in exile – but Pretoria has also taken controversial positions on other issues, both during its current two-year stint on the council and its previous – first ever – one, in 2007-2008.

In 2007, South Africa was the only council member to join China and Russia in voting against a resolution critical of human rights violation in Burma, and the following year it again sided with China and Russia in opposing a resolution on abuses in neighboring Zimbabwe.

(In 2010, Brazil voted against a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. South Africa and India were not members at the time).

During the current term, the stance of countries like South Africa, India and Brazil on the Libya and Syria conflicts have been similar to those of Russia and China. But while the U.S., Britain and France have no choice but to have to deal with Russia and China as permanent veto-wielding members, for them the idea of ushering in new permanent members that may only further complicate diplomacy on such sensitive issues is vexing.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice last September questioned the way the three countries were exercising their responsibilities as temporary members, given their aspirations for permanent seats.

“This has been an opportunity for them to demonstrate how they might act if they were to obtain permanent membership, and for us to assess our level of enthusiasm about that,” she told NPR. “Let me just say we’ve learned a lot, and not all of it, frankly, encouraging.”

‘Enhance effectiveness and legitimacy’

Critics of the current Security Council makeup say it inappropriately reflects the international balance of power as it was when the U.N. was established in the aftermath of World War II and does not take into account drastic changes since.

Discussions on “reforming” the council have dragged on for decades, marked by regional animosities (for instance, China opposes a permanent seat for Japan, Pakistan objects to India getting one), concerns among current permanent members, and disagreements over whether any newcomers should have veto power.

The U.S. has taken a cautious line on expanding the permanent membership. The Bush administration publicly supported only Japan’s bid while President Obama has endorsed a permanent seat for India “in the years ahead.”

A review of voting patterns at the U.N. in recent years provides a glimpse of how an expanded membership could affect council unity on important security issues.

U.S. law requires the State Department to compile an annual report on U.N. voting practices. The most recent one includes a section covering 13 U.N. General Assembly votes in 2010 on “issues which directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively.”

In those 13 crucial votes, India’s stance coincided with that of the U.S. just 14 percent of the time, South Africa’s 30 percent, Brazil’s 33 percent, and Nigeria’s 40 percent of the time.

At the other end of the scale, aspiring permanent members Japan and Germany voted the same way as did the U.S. 89 and 80 percent of the time respectively.

On all General Assembly votes in 2010, the voting coincidence with the U.S. was: India 25, Nigeria 33, Brazil 34, South Africa 34, Japan 58 and Germany 61 percent of the time.

In a joint statement in late 2010, India, South Africa and Brazil called once more for the Security Council to be enlarged, “in order to increase participation of developing countries.”

“This will make the UNSC more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and would also enhance its effectiveness and legitimacy, as well as the implementation of its decisions,” they said.