Jacob Zuma’s international engagements have been defined by this same strategic orientation, although his administration has attempted to compensate for the rights deficit that the implementation had entailed under Mbeki. This involved, most controversially, South Africa’s support for Resolution 1973 mandating the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya. Nato’s subsequent pursuit of regime change in Libya forced Zuma to criticise the alliance and attempt to broker a political solution in Libya. The failure of the latter, the overthrow and subsequent murder of Gaddafi and Nato’s success in effecting regime change has provoked soul searching on the country’s foreign policy and strategy.
At the heart of this intellectual reflection is the management of the inherent tension between the principles of sovereignty and the right to protect. The lead figure in this reflection is again Mbeki. In his Dullah Omar lecture at the University of Western Cape Mbeki argued that the UN Security Council and the office of the secretary-general had violated the UN Charter by sanctioning Britain, France and the US’s manipulation of Resolution 1973 to effect regime change in Libya. Mbeki suggests Africa’s right to self-determination is being increasingly imperilled by their conduct.
Maintaining there was no evidence that the Gaddafi regime had either committed genocide or was in the process of doing so, and that divisions among African nations enable such neo-colonial interventions, he called on African leaders to guard the continent’s independence and be mindful of their historical obligation to deepen democracy, respect human rights and develop African capacity including within the African Union and regional bodies to achieve African solutions to African problems.
Mbeki’s view must be interrogated. I wrote in a column last year that the collective challenge confronted in Libya was how to avoid both Rwanda and Iraq. Rwanda represents the failure of the international community to intervene decisively when political authorities systematically murder their citizens. Iraq represents political adventurism where a powerful state was allowed to initiate regime change in a country that it unilaterally deemed destabilising and dangerous. The dilemma Libya posed was how to manage the tension between the responsibility to protect citizens and respect for the sovereignty of a nation.
More importantly, it raised the challenge of how to ensure that powerful nations do not use the opportunity of a crisis to effect regime change for their own economic or geo-political interests. In this context, South Africa’s vote for Resolution 1973 was perfectly legitimate and responsible.
Those who criticise it in this regard forget that Gaddafi’s forces were on the verge of entering Benghazi and the world anticipated a massacre of rebels and innocent men, women and children. Mbeki’s accusation that this was exaggerated and did not constitute genocide is beside the point. The simple issue to be considered is whether there was a reasonable prospect that Gaddafi would use the incursion into Benghazi to stamp out the uprising at a significant cost to civilian lives.
His army’s conduct until then suggested this was a reasonable assumption, and therein lies the legitimacy for supporting Resolution 1973.
Stopping a “Rwanda”, however, does not require one to be complacent about the emergence of an “Iraq”. Mbeki is correct that Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron not only desired regime change, but also actively pursued it in Libya.
Allowing powerful countries to easily abrogate the principle of sovereignty is a dangerous precedent, for not only will it compromise the independence of developing countries, it will also allow the international order to be organised solely in the interests of the powerful. The collective global human rights community should be particularly aware of, and sensitive to this lest it becomes an unwitting accomplice to great power machinations.
Moreover, democrats should rarely consider democracy’s imposition through military means. Autocrats – of which Gaddafi was one – must be removed as far as possible through democratic means by their own people.
The implementation of Resolution 1973 created the possibility for this. The imposition of the no-fly zone created a military stalemate, at least temporarily in the East. This would have been the ideal time for a political intervention.
South Africa was therefore correct in criticising the attempt by the US, Britain and France to move beyond the mandate of Resolution 1973 and to launch through the African Union a political intervention in Libya. The only strategic mistake it made was that the political intervention should have happened at the point of the stalemate in Benghazi. South Africa’s conceptualisation of the no-fly zone and the political intervention as two phases in a single strategic intervention thus represented an innovative approach appropriate to the specific challenge confronted in Libya.
But, as usual, South Africa’s implementation left much to be desired. Two mistakes were most evident. First, if the game plan was to avoid both Rwanda and Iraq, then South Africa should formally have gone into the coalition, preferably with its Brics partners.
At the appropriate time, they could have collectively called for a halt to the military operations and initiated a political engagement. It would have been much harder for the Western powers to proceed to regime change when a critical mass of their own coalition alliance, especially from the south, called for a halt.
Remember, all three Western governments were susceptible to domestic public opinion, and this could have been used to halt the intervention. This then raises the second criticism, namely South Africa’s inability to sell its strategy in a coherent manner. As has been noted before, its public communication in this regard was dismal. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation has previously recognised its limited capacities in this regard, but repeatedly makes appointments that do not enhance its communication capabilities.
A cursory glance of the public discourse on this issue in New York, London, Paris, and even Pretoria, suggested that there was very little public understanding of what the alternative political solution proposed by the AU and South Africa entailed. South Africa’s and the AU’s communication deficits had ensured that western powers had easily won the hearts and minds campaign around Libya.
The solution proposed above would have avoided the need to make a false trade-off between the principles of the right to protect and respect for sovereignty. Mbeki’s latest reflections on Libya, and its implicit critique of South Africa’s support for Resolution 1973, take us back because it implicitly prioritises the principle of sovereignty over the right to protect. This weakens the legitimacy of our foreign policy. Moreover, the empowerment of citizens of the developing world – the ultimate goal of our foreign policy – requires both a respect for sovereignty and a rights regime for citizens. Trading of one for the other would ultimately compromise the end goal itself.
Is it therefore not more sensible to think more creatively so that both the principles of sovereignty and the “right to protect” can be pursued simultaneously?
Adam Habib is deputy vice-chancellor: research, innovation and advancement at the University of Johannesburg