Spotlight: Boosting South Africa’s impact on the UN Security Council


The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) deals with contentious international matters, often with millions of lives at stake. It is particularly relevant for Africa, which features in more than half of council discussions and where seven of the UN’s 13 peace support operations are deployed.

South Africa’s election to the council for a two-year term from January 2019, presented an opportunity to bolster its visibility and affirm its foreign policy priorities. The country aimed to prioritise Africa, with a focus on the UN and African Union (AU) partnership, preventative diplomacy, mediation in conflict prevention, and the role of women in peace and security.

Among African challenges on the UNSC agenda are the conflicts in the Sahel, Libya, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. South Africa also had to balance its interests with those of other African countries.

The ISS became a key advisor to South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) based on analysis drawn from field work and research, and ISS’ ability to work as a trusted partner in the corridors of government. ISS experts also provide insights gleaned from consultations with diplomats, academics, and civil society in New York, Pretoria, Addis Ababa and other African capitals.

‘The ability of the ISS to engage relevant role-players on South Africa’s experience in the UN Security Council has assisted DIRCO in formulating our strategies and assessing our performance,’ said Zaheer Laher, DIRCO acting Chief Director: UN Political, Peace and Security. ‘We have found the regular interaction extremely beneficial.’  

ISS is a leading source of expertise on UNSC dynamics relating to Africa

The ISS is a leading source of expertise on UNSC dynamics relating to Africa. It brings independent and objective views into robust private discussions with high-level officials and policy makers.  

‘Many universities and think tanks work on South African foreign policy, so we needed to add value with our understanding of UNSC internal dynamics and working methods, and linkages to African positions,’ says ISS Senior Researcher Gustavo de Carvalho.

‘When there is trust we can be open about different opinions and provide constructive recommendations based on evidence. We now see DIRCO being more open to articulating its strategic approach, listening to constructive criticism, engaging with civil society and striving to be understood through media and public dialogue.’   

Bilateral ISS briefings supported DIRCO’s strategic approach to the UNSC even before South Africa took its council seat. ISS helped assess strengths and weaknesses, analyse other states’ perceptions, and identify where South Africa could have the most impact. This was informed by regular ISS engagement with other think tanks, African governments and civil society.

For instance in June 2019, at DIRCO’s request, ISS convened a workshop where civil society could reflect on South Africa’s first six months on the council. In an online seminar in April 2020 ISS brought DIRCO together with academics and civil society to discuss South Africa’s performance and the best approach to the rest of its UNSC term.

ISS also encouraged DIRCO to include the role of youth as central to peacebuilding and for South Africa to fill the gap left by Peru and Sweden, who had championed the youth, when their UNSC terms ended.

In February, DIRCO worked with the International Peace Institute and AU Permanent Observer’s Mission to the UN to bring together, for the first time, all three African UNSC members, at a retreat to encourage their collaboration with the AU.

For more information contact:

Gustavo de Carvalho, ISS: [email protected], +27 794 257848 

Picture: Jacoline Schoonees

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