Can South Africa rejuvenate an ageing United Nations?

The UN’s anniversary is a good time for individual states to show why global institutions and multilateralism matter.

COVID-19 has shown that countries across the world need to work together to tackle global problems. United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres made this clear in his plea that ‘to overcome today’s fragilities and challenges we need more international cooperation – not less; strengthened multilateral institutions – not a retreat from them; better global governance – not a chaotic free-for-all.’

Multilateral institutions like the UN are important as they allow countries to pool resources and exchange ideas. They provide the space to debate and reach compromises on common approaches to development, stability and collective security.

However, these benefits are now under threat from a rise in nationalism and polarisation among countries. Seventy-five years after the UN was formed, the most symbolic institution of the post-World War II era is still not fit for purpose and is struggling to adapt to a constantly changing environment. It will be up to individual countries and blocs to revive the ageing global body.

The outcome of the United States (US) election in November will also be key to the future of multilateralism. Whether there’s a Republican or Democrat victory, the result will affect the way the US deals with the UN and other global institutions in future. The outcome may fuel volatility globally, affecting the way multilateralism is viewed and supported domestically and internationally.

South Africa has an important part to play in fostering international cooperation

In such a turbulent context, the fate of multilateralism is critical for Africa’s future. South Africa, which currently chairs the African Union (AU) and is approaching the end of its third term on the UN Security Council, has an important part to play in fostering international cooperation.

Since being readmitted to the UN in 1994, South Africa has supported a global rules-based order. The country regards multilateral organisations not only as a way for states to project power, but as essential in building legitimacy around collective decisions.

This view was reflected by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa at the UN General Assembly in September. He said COVID-19 posed a critical global threat, forcing UN member states to choose between ‘the global cooperation envisaged in the UN Charter or the pursuit of narrow self-interest and unilateralism.’

When it comes to invigorating a UN system that has lost considerable credibility, South Africa has much to offer. While it values multilateral approaches and institutions, it argues that they must change to better reflect global realities. South Africa continues to advocate for reforming the Security Council, without which the body will lose further legitimacy and struggle to collectively resolve protracted conflicts.

SA sees multilateral organisations as essential in building legitimacy around collective decisions

With just over two months left of South Africa’s time on the Security Council, the country is quickly approaching an important foreign policy landmark. In all three of its council terms, it has actively worked to improve the strategic partnership between the UN and the AU. Cooperation between the two bodies must be strengthened, and South Africa has a responsibility to continue these efforts.

In the short term, South Africa needs to show its commitment to strengthening African voices on the Security Council, even after the country is no longer a member. Engaging with all council members in its exit strategy may allow for greater continuity on key common priorities. The country is already working with Kenya on passing the baton in 2021.

Following the European model, where incoming and outgoing members make joint statements in a period of transition, the three elected African states (A3) on the Security Council – South Africa, Niger and Tunisia – should adopt a similar approach. This means the A3 should already be including Kenya – which replaces South Africa in January 2021 – in its joint statements until December 2020.

South Africa should also ask Kenya and the other African members to join public statements that are made by the A3 in the first few months of 2021, to create a sense of common interest and regional identity.

South Africa is now throwing substantial political and operational support behind the African Union

As a regional powerhouse, South Africa largely prefers working through multilateral arrangements, to avoid the perception of regional ‘big brother’. At a strategic level, the country has been a strong AU supporter, but is frequently criticised for distancing itself from the continental body’s operational affairs. This is best shown by the limited placing of its nationals in key AU positions.

Recently there have been important signs of a renewed interest in the AU. Ramaphosa is the 2020 AU chair, and a South African, Wamkele Mene, was appointed as the first Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

It is also good news that South Africa is now bidding for several senior AU leadership positions in 2021 which are available as part of the ongoing AU reform process. The country is throwing substantial political support behind the continental institution and is investing in the day-to-day running and fate of the AU and AU Commission.

South Africa should consider pursuing an appointment as an AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) member. This would enable it to both strengthen African responses and join key discussions on the UN–AU partnership. The PSC is also a good platform to extend its leadership as AU chair on COVID-19 responses and the Silencing the Guns initiative.

Africa needs global champions that can mobilise the continent’s aspirations and interests. South Africa is well placed to take on the task. The 75th anniversary of the UN is a good time to show how individual states can provide positive impetus to ensure global institutions remain relevant. South Africa shouldn’t miss the opportunity to be the African champion that helps rekindle multilateralism.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Chido Mutangadura, Consultant and Annette Leijenaar, Programme Head, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

This ISS Today was published with funding from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

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