Zuma tells the UN: Listen to African Union

South African President Zuma airs complaints of UN interference in Libya during a UN Security Council meeting on how the African Union and the UN can work more closely.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
South Africa President Jacob Zuma and President of the United Nations Security Council listens at the UN headquarters in New York, Thursday.

South Africa has wasted no time in its first weeks as president of the United Nations Security Council, with President Jacob Zuma taking the UN to task for ignoring the African Union and moving ahead with military intervention in Libya last year.

During a debate on how to improve relations between the UN and the African Union, Mr. Zuma said that the AU had a peace plan that could have worked, allowing a peaceful transfer of power from Muammar Qaddafi to a transitional government.

Instead, the violent overthrow of Mr. Qaddafi – backed by NATO warplanes – had destabilized the region, with pro-Qaddafi fighters and weapons flooding the neighboring countries of North Africa.

“A problem which was confined to one country, Libya, has now grown to be a regional problem. The lesson we should draw from the Libyan experience is that greater political coherence and a common vision between the AU and the UN are critical in the resolution of African conflicts,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Zuma as saying.

Zuma’s speech caps more than a year of angry rhetoric and periodic sullen silence between South Africa and the United States. During the Arab uprisings across North Africa early last year, many members of South Africa’s left-leaning ruling coalition warned that the West was creating the conditions for “regime change” in order to take over the region’s rich oil resources.

In June of last year, Julius Malema, the now-suspended president of the African National Congress Youth League, called for the arrest of President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy for “attempting to assassinate a foreign head of state.”

By November, the Congress of South African Trade Unions still hadn’t cooled down, announcing at a central committee meeting that the war in Libya was motivated by Western greed, and NATO’s air campaign in support of Libyan rebels fighting Qaddafi was an attempt “to effect a regime change in Libya to allow access to the resources of that country.”

Not enough time before sending in bombers?

For Zuma and many leaders within the AU, the problem was twofold: One, the UN didn’t give the African Union enough time to mediate Qaddafi’s transition out of power, before sending in the NATO bombers. Even a few days before the bombing raids began, Zuma was insisting that a peaceful resolution was possible. Two, South Africa eventually voted in favor of a UN resolution to allow NATO to fly air sorties over Libya to protect civilian populations from Qaddafi's military reprisals. Zuma later complained that the NATO mission was misused to support the rebels, and to force a regime change.

In his second meeting with Qaddafi, Zuma announced that the “Brother Leader” had agreed to a cease-fire with rebels, but would not step down. Rebel leaders, in turn, said they would not stop fighting until Qaddafi was overthrown.

Whether peace was possible in Libya or not, the point that the UN Security Council ended up agreeing with, unanimously, was that the AU and UN needed to set aside their differences and work more closely to solve problems in the future.

But the US did offer some pushback. US ambassador Susan Rice said that UN members were just as frustrated with the AU as the AU was with the UN.

"African Union member states have sometimes indicated that they feel ignored or disregarded by this council," she was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.

"Some Security Council members feel African Union member states have not always provided unified or consistent views on key issues and that the African Union has at times been slow to act on important matters."

Improved relations between the UN Security Council and the AU were certainly a goal, she added, but "this cooperation cannot be on the basis that the regional organization independently decides the policy and United Nations member states simply bless it and pay for it.”

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