Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fifth Report

South Africa's international role

98. One of the most dramatic signs of South's Africa post-apartheid 'rebirth' has been the country's reappearance on the world stage. Before 1994, South African foreign policy was largely concerned with defending and justifying apartheid abroad. The result was the country's exclusion from a host of international organisations and the imposition of boycotts and sanctions, such as the ban on sporting contacts, the UN arms embargo and EU sanctions. However, since the holding of the first free and fair elections under universal suffrage, South Africa has assumed a key role in nearly all the major continental and international organisations. We have discussed its role in SADC above (paras 69-75) and here concentrate on its work within three key fora: the African Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

The African Union

99. The African Union (AU) replaced the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) at the Durban Summit of African leaders in July 2002.[125] In the Sirte Declaration, which called for the establishment of the AU, African heads of state and government argued that a revitalised body was needed to accelerate: "the process of integration in the continent to enable it play its rightful role in the global economy while addressing multifaceted social, economic and political problems compounded as they are by certain negative aspects of globalisation."[126] There are currently 53 members of the African Union. The 'vision' of the Union is described as follows:

  • The AU is Africa's premier institution and principal organization for the promotion of accelerated socio-economic integration of the continent, which will lead to greater unity and solidarity between African countries and peoples.
  • The AU is based on the common vision of a united and strong Africa and on the need to build a partnership between governments and all segments of civil society, in particular women, youth and the private sector, in order to strengthen solidarity and cohesion amongst the peoples of Africa.
  • As a continental organization it focuses on the promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent as a prerequisite for the implementation of the development and integration agenda of the Union.[127]

100. The AU has inherited a number of institutions from the old OAU, and developed several others, partly modelled on those of the EU. These include the Assembly, Executive Council, Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the Commission, which is based at the AU's Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. On 18 March this year, the Pan-African Parliament also held its inaugural meeting. This assembly is made up of five Members (at least one of whom is a woman) from the legislatures of each member state of the Union which has ratified the relevant protocol. [128] One of the Union's key policies has been the New Partnership for Africa (NePAD), which is discussed at length below (see paragraphs 122-41). The organisation is currently headed by President Joaquim Chissanó of Mozambique.

101. Two recent developments have also strengthened the Union's commitment to promoting human rights and conflict resolution in the continent. In January this year, 15 AU members (including South Africa) agreed to create an African Court of Human and People's Rights.[129] This move has generally been welcomed by human rights organisations as an important step forward in tackling human rights abuses on the continent. However, they stress that the court will need 'teeth' and the co-operation of member states if it is to be effective.

102. Meeting in February in Libya, AU leaders also agreed to the creation of an African peace-keeping force. This will eventually consist of five brigades of soldiers, policemen and military observers—in total approximately 15,000 people—to be led by South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. The force will be directed by the PSC, which came into being last year, and has 15 members drawn from across the Union's membership. It is hoped that the new body will be able both to tackle present conflicts in the continent, such as that in Uganda, and help prevent future clashes arising.[130] It is also part of the Union's wider commitment to create 'African solutions to African problems', without having to resort to outside nations for assistance.

103. As the FCO noted in its memorandum to the Committee, South Africa (and President Thabo Mbeki in particular) has played an "active role in taking forward change" in the revitalisation of the OAU and participates fully in all the activities of the new African Union.[131] President Mbeki served as the Union's first Chairperson from July 2002 to July 2003, and has been especially active in the creation of the African peace-keeping force discussed above.

104. In his oral evidence to the Committee, Mr Mullin stated that he was "mildly optimistic" about the new organisation, and the change from the old OAU:

It has changed from an organisation that was mainly concerned with African solidarity and sweeping problems under the carpet to an organisation that now genuinely acknowledges the problems on their continent and the recognition that Africans must increasingly take responsibility for resolving them.[132]

The Minister had previously outlined to the House, in answer to a written question, how the United Kingdom was supporting the organisation: £1,089,745 to the AU Conflict Management Centre and the its wider peacekeeping work (£5.9 million to the African Mission in Burundi), plus some small-scale support to the Union's administrative work.[133]

105. Some commentators have, however, questioned whether the Union's worthy ambitions will bring about genuine change on the continent. Concerns have been expressed that the aspiration of promoting genuine continental integration is somewhat over-ambitious. Professor Simon, for example, told us, that: "My sense is that in many parts of the region, there would be greater support for the more geographically-specific regional economic initiatives, like SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] because they are more coherent."[134]

106. We conclude that the African Union holds the potential to deliver significant improvements in the standard of life for Africans, and should be fully supported by the United Kingdom and the EU. The recent creation of an African court of human rights and the agreement on a continental peace-keeping force are to be particularly welcomed, demonstrating, as they do, a commitment to tackle some of the most fundamental problems facing Africa at this time. South Africa has played a crucial role in all these developments.

107. We recommend that the Government continue to work with South Africa, and all its African partners, to assist the AU in realising the impressive ambitions it has set for itself.


108. Under Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd—architect of 'Grand apartheid'—South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961, shortly after the country had become a republic.[135] This voluntary departure pre-empted the country's anticipated expulsion from the organisation, following the growing revulsion of the world community at the policies of Verwoerd's administration. It was with great joy, therefore, that the Commonwealth welcomed South Africa back into its councils in 1994, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela—the man who had done so much to fight the evil of Verwoerd's legacy.

109. South Africa is now a key member of the Commonwealth, taking an active role in all aspects of the group's work. It served as Chair of the Commonwealth from 1999-2002. South Africa was also a member of the ten-country High Level Group of member states, which was established at the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Durban to review the role of the Commonwealth in the 21st Century.[136]

110. Professor Simon told us that South Africa valued its role within the Commonwealth:

President Mbeki himself sees it very much as one of a suite of global multilateral institutions where South Africa can play a pivotal role, often as a broker between if you like the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth.[137]

He felt that South Africa had particularly welcomed the accession of Mozambique and Cameroon in 1995, neither of which had been British colonies or protectorates, as a sign of the Commonwealth assuming a "wider role than simply a former British ex-colonial club."[138] Professor Barber agreed with this assessment and stressed the role that South Africa sees itself playing in the Commonwealth, and other such international fora, as that of "a bridge-builder between the first and third worlds."[139] This view of the Commonwealth as a valuable means of allowing developed and developing nations from across the globe to interact was also echoed during our visit to South Africa.[140]

111. As noted above (para 80), the most recent high-profile Commonwealth meeting, the CHOGM held at Abuja in December last year, once again brought differences in opinion to the fore on the vexed question of Zimbabwe.[141] Although the meeting eventually agreed on continuing Zimbabwe's suspension from the Council of the Commonwealth for another year, this result was not achieved without considerable acrimony. President Mbeki himself was reported to have been particularly angry at the decision, and the weekly public letter he wrote shortly after the meeting's conclusion reflected fully his views on the subject.[142] (President Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe would leave the Commonwealth with immediate effect, following the meeting's decision.[143])

112. We agree with Mr Mullin, who stated in his evidence to us that, "the entire Zimbabwe issue poisons everything it touches."[144] He was confident, however, that the situation was not irredeemable:

What I took heart from was that actually most African countries went along—it was done by consensus in the end, as you know—with maintaining the suspension. However, there were some fairly tough arguments and if it did do any damage I think it was only temporary.[145]

He also rejected strongly the criticism, which had been reported to us, that the United Kingdom delegation to CHOGM could have achieved more in relation to Zimbabwe, with better preparation and a greater willingness to engage fully with other partners.[146]

113. We conclude that South Africa plays a crucial role as a leading member of the Commonwealth, actively supporting the organisation's aim of bridging the gap between the developed and developing worlds and supporting global respect for human rights. The recent disagreements over Zimbabwe at Commonwealth meetings—the issue that "poisons everything it touches"—should not be allowed to damage the organisation's very valuable work, nor the UK's working relationship with South Africa within the body. We recommend that the British Government seek every possible opportunity to restore any damage done to inter-Commonwealth relations by the recent disagreements at the Abuja CHOGM, while maintaining the organisation's tough stance on Robert Mugabe's continuing human rights abuses.

United Nations

114. South Africa has similarly played a full role as member of the United Nations. The Foreign Office described it as a "major player", both in the Group of 77 nations at the UN (the G77) and in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which it was chair from 1998 to 2003. [147] South Africa has also hosted two major recent UN conferences: the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, in 2001;[148] and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002—the biggest meeting ever organised by the UN.[149]


115. In 2003, South Africa was the co-ordinator for the African Group at the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). In our Report on the FCO Human Rights Annual Report 2002, the Committee noted that:

The UNCHR is the UN's main forum for the discussion of human rights. It has 53 members, elected by the wider UN membership, and meets annually in Geneva in March or April each year to, "examine, monitor and publicly report either on human rights situations in specific countries or territories or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide." The 2002 plenary session of the Commission was not a successful one. The FCO described it as: "a highly-charged, confrontational session with voting... split between developed and developing countries." It reported that many resolutions regarded by the United Kingdom and EU as important were defeated and that much use was made of procedural devices to inhibit the Commission's work.[150]

The latest FCO Annual Report on Human Rights stated that although prospects for the 2003 session of the Commission "seemed even less promising," it was "less politicised than many had expected."[151] The Commission successfully passed motions on the situation in countries such as Burma, North Korea and Turkmenistan. However, once again, and this time under the co-ordination of South Africa, the African Group of nations prevented all discussion of an EU resolution on Zimbabwe by means of a procedural motion.[152] The "poison" of Zimbabwe disrupts the work of yet another important international body.

116. We conclude that the role South Africa has played at the UNCHR to prevent even the discussion of resolutions that address the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe is deeply regrettable, especially in light of the very positive involvement it has with the rest of the UN's work, and could be damaging to South Africa's wider interests.

UN Reform

117. South Africa, like many UN member states, argues that the organisation is in need of fundamental organisational reform. The United Kingdom shares this concern and has set out its proposals for possible improvements on a number of occasions.[153] Both nations stress that any reform should encompass the whole organisation, but public attention on this issue has largely been focused on reform of the Security Council.

118. At present, the UN Security Council reflects the post-war balance of power. It has five permanent members—the Peoples' Republic of China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the USA—plus ten other, non-permanent, members on a rotating basis. The five permanent members have the power of veto over all business. Many commentators feel that the permanent membership fails to reflect the realities of the world in the twenty-first century. The dominance of European nations among the five has caused particular annoyance.

119. The British Government has committed itself to expanding the Council to include "new permanent members who represent the regional realities of the modern world."[154] Such "realities" are largely interpreted as adding, at least, one new permanent member from South America, Africa and an additional one from Asia. In a recent debate in the House, the FCO Minister Bill Rammell indicated that the United Kingdom supported the principle of India and Brazil's permanent membership of a reformed Council.[155]

120. It is generally accepted that South Africa would be, as one witness described, the "natural inheritor" of any African seat in the Security Council.[156] It has demonstrated repeatedly that it would have the necessary resources, international respect and commitment to multilateralism to fully justify a place at the table. Chris Mullin indicated that the Government certainly supported an African seat on the Security Council and that South Africa would be an "obvious candidate."[157] However, he recognised that this was not for him to determine. As we were told during meetings in South Africa, this will be a matter for African nations to settle amongst themselves. They may well compromise on a rotating seat for the continent.

121. We conclude that the arguments for reform at the United Nations, particularly at the Security Council, are undeniable. We also conclude that were there to be an 'African seat' on the Council, South Africa would be amongst the strongest African candidates, filling nearly all of the criteria for such a position. We recognise, though, that this will be a matter for African nations themselves to settle when the time arises.

125   "The African Union legally came into being in May 2001 but its formal launch took place in Durban in July 2002. The last Assembly of Heads of State from the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was held on 8 July 2002. It was immediately followed by the Inaugural Summit of the African Union from 9-10 July 2002." Ev 69, para 24 Back

126   For further details, see: Back

127   IbidBack

128   "Inaugural and the First Session of the Pan-African Parliament", Africa Union press release No. 019/2004, 19 March 2004 Back

129   See, for example: "African rights court's slow start", BBC News, 25 January 2004. Back

130   "Coping with conflict," The Economist, 17 January 2004; "Africa leaders agree joint force", BBC News, 28 February 2004; and "How to put the house in order-an African peacekeeping force", The Economist, 13 March 2004 Back

131   Ev 69, para 24 Back

132   Q 208  Back

133   HC Deb, 22 January 2004, col 1417W Back

134   Q 22 Back

135   Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (1901-1966) was Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966, when he was assassinated. During his premiership the Sharpeville Massacre took place, the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress were banned, South Africa became a republic and Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. He is chiefly remembered as the 'architect of apartheid'. Back

136   The group also included Australia, India, Malta, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Trinidad & Tobago, the United Kingdom, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. For the Group's final report, see: "Report by the Commonwealth High Level Review Group to Commonwealth Heads Of Government, Coolum, Australia", March 2002, Back

137   Q 29 Back

138   IbidBack

139   Q 29. Also see: Ev 110 [Mills]. Back

140   All the states of the immediate region are now members of the Commonwealth, with the exception of Angola. Namibia only had a narrow connection with the Commonwealth previously, through the responsibility of the Cape Colony for the administration of Walvis Bay. Mozambique is the only totally non-English speaking member of he association, although Cameroon is predominantly Francophone.  Back

141   For further details of the Abuja meeting, see: Back

142   President Thabo Mbeki, "We will resist the upside-down view of Africa", ANC Today, volume 3, no. 49 (12-18 December), available at: Back

143   "Zimbabwe quits Commonwealth" BBC News, 8 December 2003 Back

144   Q 210 Back

145   IbidBack

146   Q 211 Back

147   The Group of 77 (G77) was established in 1964 by seventy-seven developing countries at the end of the first session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It gradually developed into a permanent institutional structure. Although the membership of the organisation has increased to 135 countries, the original name has been retained. For further details, see:

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was established in 1955, and aims to represent the political, economic and cultural interests of the developing world. It now has 116 members, drawn from across the globe. Back

148   For further details, see: Back

149   For further details, see: Back

150   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Human Rights Annual Report 2002, HC 257, para 79 Back

151   FCO, Human Rights Annual Report 2003, Cm 5967, September 2003, pp 111-2 Back

152   Ev 70, para 27 [FCO] Back

153   See, for example: FCO, The United Kingdom in the United Nations, Cm 5898, September 2003. Back

154   Ibid., p 44 Back

155   HC Deb, 11 November 2003, col 205 Back

156   Q 33 [Barber] Back

157   Q 212  Back

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