South Africa's cautious UN vote for Syrian action

While Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution calling for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down, South Africa voted for the measure. But it voices qualms on foreign intervention. 

Russia and China’s joint veto of a United Nations resolution urging Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down has kicked up a firestorm of criticism from the West and from human rights activists.

Russia and China claim their votes were aimed at preventing a further escalation of the conflict, and that punishing President Assad at this time would be counterproductive to coming up with a peaceful resolution of the almost year long conflict in Syria.

Less noticed was the role that South Africa and other emerging nations are playing in this dispute. South Africa – which is serving as president of the UN Security Council – voted with the majority to urge Syrian president Assad to step down, but when Russia and China vetoed the resolution, South Africa’s government voiced its own qualms about foreign intervention in Syria.

“It is important that the Syrian people be allowed to decide their own fate, including their future leadership,” read an emailed statement sent by Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the South African ministry of international relations. “Fundamentally, no foreign or external parties should interfere in Syria as they engage in the critical decision-making processes on the future of their country. Any solution must preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

In explaining South Africa’s support for the UN resolution, Mr. Monyela’s statement said, “We were also satisfied that the final draft resolution was not aimed at imposing regime change in Syria, which would be against the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

At issue is the thorny issue of when nations have a right to intervene in each others affairs. In the post-Rwandan genocide era, human rights activists began to talk of a “responsibility to protect,” enshrined in the United Nations charter. The UN invoked this responsibility to protect in voting to intervene in the Libyan civil war last year, but Russia, China, South Africa, and other nations argue that this responsibility was misused. Instead of preventing the Libyan government from attacking civilian areas where rebels were based, NATO warplanes began to actually target Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and other government installations, setting the stage for the removal of Qaddafi from power.

By vetoing the UN resolution this time, Russia and China are accused of protecting a client state. But by adding their own voices of dissent, South Africa, Brazil and other emerging nations are voicing their own disquiet, and signaling they won’t be fooled again.

At news time, Syrian forces are reported to have shelled civilian areas, including a civilian hospital, in the central Syrian town of Homs, where rebels have established a stronghold. UN observers estimate that at least 6000 people have been killed since the rebellion began in March 2011.

While voicing concern for the growing human rights violations in Syria, Brazil summed up the new skeptical spirit in a letter dated Nov. 2011 from Brazil’s UN representative to the UN secretary general, and quoted in this opinion piece in the New York Times.

“Violence against civilian populations must be repudiated wherever it takes place,” the letter says, specifically pointing out the “bitter reminder” of the international community’s “failure to act” during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “Yet attention must also be paid to the fact that the world today suffers the painful consequences of interventions that have aggravated existing conflicts, allowed terrorism to penetrated into places where it previously did not exist, given rise to new cycles of violence and increased the vulnerability of civilian populations.”

India, too, added its independent voice of skepticism about foreign intervention.

"We have called for a peaceful and inclusive political process,” said India’s representative to the UN, Hardeep Puri in a statement to the Security Council. “The problem in Syria is not merely security-related; it is primarily political and economic and emanates from the Syrian people's desire to play a greater role in shaping their destiny. Resolution of this problem cannot be found in violence or armed struggle and its violent suppression. Nor can a solution be reached through prescriptions from outside. The Syrian people demand and deserve empowerment so that a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political solution can be found in an atmosphere free of violence and bloodshed.”

That South Africa and other skeptics of foreign intervention ultimately voted for the UN resolution, despite doubts, could be a sign of pragmatism, says Philippe Bolopion, the UN director for Human Rights Watch in New York.

“I think they saw what is happening in [the Syrian town of] Homs, and they saw Russia selling arms to the Syrian government, and they voted with their principles,” says Mr. Bolopion. “The hard feelings they had about the Libyan intervention are still there, but they wanted to do the right thing.”

South Africa can justify its vote for the vetoed UN resolution, since it largely follows the road map laid out by the Arab League, which has led mediation efforts in Syria, says Comfort Ero, the Africa director of the International Crisis Group office in Nairobi. “There has been a lot of distrust toward the UN since the Libyan intervention,” Ms. Ero says, “but I think, for South Africa, the Syrian situation is different from Libya. In Syria, there was a regional dialog process led by the Arab League, and that process was exhausted. So South Africa can say, we wanted to give political dialog a chance, but it hasn’t worked.”

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