Abstaining in absentia: does SADC have a common position on Ukraine?

Some Southern African states show that you can vote against Russian aggression and still remain non-aligned.

Did most Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states just officially agree to abstain from United Nations (UN) votes on Russia’s war against Ukraine – in absentia?

It seems so. On 31 January SADC’s security troika met in Windhoek, hosted by Namibian President Hage Geingob as current troika chair. Other members present included immediate past chair, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, the next chair.

Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi also attended as SADC chair, as a country on the meeting’s agenda, or both. Eswatini, Lesotho and Mozambican were also represented since their countries figured prominently in discussions.

The summit made several decisions on regional conflicts. However paragraph 14 of the final communiqué referred to non-SADC matters and appeared quite pregnant with implicit significance.

Seven states tried to commit all 16 SADC members to abstaining from voting on any conflict outside Africa

It stated: ‘Summit adopted the draft African Union Declaration on the USA proposed “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” and urged Member States to communicate SADC’s position, and reaffirmed the stance of Non-Alignment on conflicts outside the continent and the region at multilateral fora.’

©Institute for Security Studies

That United States (US) bill was adopted by the US House of Representatives last year but wasn’t taken up by the Senate. ISS Today sources doubt it ever will be. Nevertheless, it has given African states, particularly South Africa, a big stick to beat the US for meddling in Africa’s relations with Russia. The bill would sanction certain Russian companies – like the military Wagner outfit – and the Africans who collude with them.

The second part of paragraph 14 is more interesting and has potentially major implications. It seems the seven states in Windhoek tried to commit all 16 SADC members to abstain from any vote on any conflict outside Africa. The focus was Russia’s war against Ukraine, as indicated by the juxtaposition of the decision with that on the US bill.

African states have been more ambivalent than most about this war, with almost the same number abstaining as those supporting UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia. South Africa especially has stuck to its ‘non-aligned’ stance, abstaining from all four resolutions and the one decision. Fellow former liberation movements in government in Southern Africa have invariably done the same.

At least nine of 16 SADC states supported at least one UN resolution against Russia’s Ukraine invasion

But other SADC countries have been less consistent. Eight voted for the first UN resolution on Ukraine on 2 March 2022, condemning Russia for its aggression and demanding immediate withdrawal. These were Botswana, Comoros, the DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zambia. They constituted a majority of SADC members voting, as only seven abstained. Eswatini didn’t take part.

In the second General Assembly resolution on 24 March 2022, which added concern about ongoing civilian suffering, some SADC states that backed the 2 March resolution switched to abstention. The overall SADC count was six in favour, nine abstaining, and Comoros absent. The third resolution on 7 April 2022, which suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council because of its gross human rights abuses in Ukraine, saw SADC support slip to five for, Zimbabwe against, and nine abstentions.

However by the fourth vote on 12 October 2022 – which condemned and rejected Russia’s unilateral referenda in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – SADC states supporting the resolution rose to nine. Seven abstained. In a final vote on 16 September 2022 on whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky should be allowed to address the annual UN General Assembly meeting remotely, the SADC vote in favour was even larger.

So at least nine of the 16 SADC states voted in favour of at least one General Assembly resolution condemning or sanctioning Russia for its Ukraine invasion. Yet it seems that all these countries are now bound to abstain from such resolutions.

Zambia doesn’t take sides, but also rejects aggression or war because of the human cost

Botswana’s opinion on the troika decision would be interesting. It voted for all but one UN resolution. Intriguingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was due to visit Botswana last month after visiting South Africa, Eswatini and Angola on his African charm offensive. But he didn’t go – instead travelling to Eritrea, Russia’s biggest African fan. Was that because Gaborone didn’t want him?

Zambia and the DRC’s positions on the SADC troika decision are even more interesting. The DRC voted for all the UN’s Ukraine resolutions and Zambia for all but one – when it was absent from the chamber. Yet Tshisekedi and Hichilema were at the Windhoek summit, which adopted a universal non-aligned SADC position in the UN and other multilateral bodies.

How does that figure? Perhaps paragraph 14 of the communiqué was simply presumptuous. Like Africa, SADC has officially taken no common position on Russia’s war against Ukraine – and a few lines in a communiqué won’t stop member states from voting at the UN to condemn Russia.

But the answer to the riddle might also depend on how you define ‘non-aligned’. A senior Zambian official suggested to ISS Today that ‘non-aligned’ doesn’t mean silence on matters that affect humanity. Zambia doesn’t take sides but rejects acts of aggression or war between nations because of the human cost. And non-aligned governments don’t lose their rights to vote at the UN.

This is a message South Africa and its regional allies should hear. They have chosen to interpret ‘non-aligned’ to mean refraining from even a hint of criticism of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

That Zambia and the DRC remain non-aligned while supporting UN resolutions condemning aggression or annexation of a nation’s territory by force gives the lie to South Africa’s ‘non-alignment’. It exposes South Africa’s position as simply pro-Russia.

Incidentally, the non-aligned position reinforced at the troika summit referred to all matters outside Africa. So that must also cover the Israel-Palestine conflict – one in which South Africa has adopted an extremely aligned position against Israel, often voting against it at the UN.

Non-alignment, then, seems to be purely in the eye of the aligner.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: Presidency South Africa/Twitter

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