SA's response to the Libyan crisis: An analysis

Eusebius McKaiser says government looked a gift horse in the mouth

Eusebius McKaiser, The 2011 Ruth First Memorial Lecture, Johannesburg, August 17 2011:

Looking an international relations gift horse in the mouth

SA's response to the Libyan crisis


"The world dare not relinquish the commitment to Human Rights... our struggle to end apartheid was a global one and we believe that change has enhanced the necessity for a worldwide Human Rights campaign. South Africa will play a central role in this campaign."

This lyrical commitment to human rights is recorded, on the brink of democracy in 1993, in an African National Congress discussion document on foreign policy. The document is soaked in the language of human rights. The first of seven principles for a future foreign policy affirmed SA's "belief in, and preoccupation with, Human Rights." Eighteen years later, an obvious question raises its awkward head, ‘What, in fact, became the foundation of democratic South Africa's foreign policy?'

There are several possibilities - moral principles, constitutionalism, economic interest and strategic geopolitical considerations. I want to grapple in this lecture with this overarching question of what the foundation of our foreign policy is, and along the way I tell the story of what happened to that fiery rhetorical commitment to human rights. I tell this story through a close examination of our response to the crisis in Libya.

The highlight on the 2011 international relations front must be the political drama that hit parts of North Africa and the Arab world. It is a story of citizens' hunger for responsive and democratic government, and other material demands, in parts of the world where democracy's chances of taking root had been prematurely accepted as almost zero. Until, of course, Tunisia happened. And Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen. Suddenly, we all had to brush up on our geography and history. And our spelling.

One might have thought that Libya would be the exception to change. Not so. Citizens across the region, including Libya, seized the opportunity to demand self-governance.

The assassination of photographer Anton Hammerl brought the crisis in Libya home to us in South Africa in a particularly poignant way. There were considerable tensions as to role of the SA government in getting information about Anton.

And so this crisis presented an opportunity for the South African government to demonstrate effective regional leadership. South Africa had an opportunity to publicly articulate and sell and, practically, to successfully deliver an ‘African solution for an African problem'. This phrase became particularly popular following the United Nations' tardy response to the crisis in Rwanda in the 1990s, reflecting a desire on the part of Africans to take the continent's destiny into our own hands.   

Sadly, our government looked an international relations gift horse in the mouth.

I interviewed South African officials and diplomats located at the United Nations, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, and in Cabinet.

There are two important caveats: the anonymous nature of the interviews means that I cannot attribute them to specific individuals and, in addition, the research focused on Libya as a case study, and so did not look at foreign policy over a long period of time, nor across multiple case studies.

Focusing on one case study only has, however, allowed me to engage our response to the Libyan crisis closely and important general insights still emerged in the process.

The story of our response to the crisis in Libya will lead me to three important conclusions.

First, we did not manage to publicly articulate a feasible plan for ending the crisis in Libya. Our public diplomacy was a failure. Public diplomacy is about winning hearts and minds and is therefore an important tool of diplomatic influence. SA's conviction that the AU roadmap is the best blueprint for engaging Libya, and Gaddafi, suffered at the hands of poor public diplomacy.

Second, in addition to failing to sell its plan to the world, SA also failed to follow through on its thinking about the crisis with successful action. An important part of this practical failure is the capacity weaknesses of the African Union, the vehicle meant to deliver ‘African solutions for African problems.' SA's foreign policy goals require that we think more carefully about the AU's weaknesses.

Third, besides these public failures, there is also an internal weakness within foreign policy: it is not clear what principles, overall, inform our thinking. I will explore various possibilities through the Libyan case study.

The Libyan crisis

It is important to start the story of the Libyan crisis with a statement of the historical backdrop to the current crisis. Gaddafi has been  the ruler of Libya since he came to power through a military coup in 1969. Libya is an oil rich economy which has enabled Gaddafi over the past few decades to use his oil revenue to build political relationships across the region.

He has ruled with an iron fist since the 1970s, and has been very ambitious in his desire to become the ruler, first of a pan-Arab state and, later, of a pan-African state, ideals he has mercifully not achieved.

Writing in 1974, Ruth First perceptively posed the question of how much long-term advantage Libya might seize from its oil-wealth. She gave a poignant warning with the benefit of 2011 hindsight, that "Libya may well miss her chance to re-make herself, and to take advantage of the power which her assertive policies in the sphere of oil have helped to achieve." Libya, or more specifically Gaddafi, missed this chance.

In the middle of January this year, protests started in a number of cities but these were peaceful, an expression of discontent at poor rollout of housing projects, and disapproval of corruption.

Although the government responded with further housing investment, at least one writer and political analyst, Jamal al-Hajji, used the internet to call for further protests aimed at wider political reform. He was arrested on the 1st February and people who had become aware of his internet call for further protest started agitating to do just that.

The Libyan crisis started in earnest on the 15th February when hundreds of Libyans protested in Benghazi at police headquarters after a human rights lawyer had also been arrested. The police responded with violence and within days, Libya, like other countries in the region, was on fire.

The international community responded. On the 22nd February, the United Nations Security Council released a press statement which condemned the violence in Libya and the use of force against civilians.

The following day, the African Union Peace and Security Council condemned the Libyan government's use of excessive force against the protestors, stating that the government's actions violated international humanitarian law.

This was followed on the 25th February with a statement by the United Nations Human Rights Council which condemned the systematic human rights violations in Libya, and asked the United Nations General Assembly to take the unprecedented step of suspending Libya from the Human Rights Council.

The next day the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1970 which referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court, imposed an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, both an assets freeze and a travel ban. As deputy minister Ebrahim Ebrahim reminded us in a public speech recently, SA not only supported but also co-sponsored both this Resolution  and Resolution 1973.

Resolution 1973: was the vote a mistake?

Resolution 1973, of course, was passed on the 17th March imposing a ‘no-fly' zone, and soon thereafter NATO took control of the Libyan air space, and strikes against targets in Libya began. South Africa appeared to distance itself from the resolution once these strikes were in full swing.

In his Human Rights Day speech, less than a week after the no-fly zone resolution was passed, President Zuma stated that SA says "no to the regime change doctrine, and no to the foreign occupation of Libya."  This raises the question of how we came to vote for 1973. Did our officials make a mistake? Or is there a coherent explanation for the vote and the subsequent criticism of NATO action in Libya? What, exactly, happened?

A week before the vote, on the 10th March, an AU Peace and Security Council meeting was held, which was attended by President Zuma. The crisis in Libya was extensively debated, and the possibility of a no-fly zone was raised. Yet, no resolution was adopted in opposition to a no-fly zone. The meeting merely resolved that any international action aimed at ending the crisis in Libya should not extend to "foreign occupation".

When debate about the draft text of  Resolution 1973 took place days later at the UN in New York, the South African team was in contact with Pretoria, and with our diplomats at the AU headquarters.

President Zuma was aware of the key contentious phrase in the text of Resolution 1973 - "all means necessary." The SA team at the UN was in direct and constant communication with Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and President Jacob Zuma during the drafting process. One official told me, "The President had been thoroughly briefed on the text (1973), and the concerns about regime change." He made it clear to Pretoria that the text "is not watertight and is susceptible to abuse."

The President therefore explicitly took the risk of voting in favour of Resolution 1973 with full knowledge that it might be a pretext for regime change on the part of some Western powers.

Besides engaging Pretoria, our team at the UN was also in contact with our ambassador to the AU. One very senior diplomat explained to me how SA's relationship with the AU had come into play. They stated that he had "called the SA Ambassador to the AU, as well as one of the chief legal advisors of the AU. I wanted to know from these persons what exactly the AU position on a no-fly zone was, and whether or not the special meeting that had taken place on the 10th March 2011 had adopted a clear, recorded or unrecorded, view on a no-fly zone."

As it turned out, of course, the AU officials informed the diplomat that no explicit AU position had been formulated on the question of a no-fly zone, but the story underscores the importance SA attaches to promoting the decisions and actions of the AU internationally.

Furthermore, South Africa had to take into account the ‘Responsibility to Protect' principle that had been adopted by the AU. This principle states that while the responsibility to protect its own citizens is first and foremost an individual state responsibility, in the event that the state fails to do so, there is a collective African responsibility to act in order to protect citizens in that state.

This principle had signalled an important break with its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, and required SA - and the AU - to act precisely in cases such as what was unfolding in Libya.  One official told me that when debate about 1973 took place within the SA team at the UN, "the need to protect civilians was the overriding concern."

So concerns about the precise wording of Resolution 1973 had to play second fiddle to voting against the abuse of state powers on the part of Gaddafi.

It only looked like SA had made a mistake because SA failed, subsequently, to distinguish its endorsement of Resolution 1973, from its criticism of NATO's apparent disregard for the letter and spirit of Resolution 1973. This failure to articulate the SA position, and to undo the perception of incoherence, is, again, a reflection of poor public diplomacy.

It is worth pausing over this public diplomacy failure.

A decent plan lost to poor public diplomacy

Public diplomacy is about successfully selling an idea in the court of international opinion, as well as selling it to SA citizens. In the case of Anton Hammerl's disappearance, these two challenges - selling a solution both domestically and internationally - came together in a stark way. South Africa's challenge was to sell the idea of ‘African solutions for African problems'. SA needed, furthermore, to sell the story of how its vote in favour of Resolution 1973 is consistent with the rejection of NATO's intervention in Libya. This should then have been followed through with successful action.

First, the plan just was to successfully implement the AU Roadmap. One cabinet member told me, "The only game in town is the AU Roadmap". The roadmap is a political solution to the crisis. The basic idea is that the parties to the conflict should find a political solution with AU assistance.

When I asked a senior diplomat what this entails, practically, he responded, "The UN special envoy to Libya, Abdulillah al-Khatib, and the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr Jean Ping, together with a representative from the Arab League, would go to Tripoli to facilitate political dialogue between the interlocutors."

Specifically, they would help them start talks about Libya's future, including the need for basic political architecture not currently in place, such as a constitution. There might also be a transitional authority put in place until free and fair, democratic elections are held.

Second, SA needed to express a clearer view on Gaddafi in the court of international opinion. Every interviewee made it clear to me that a post-crisis Libyan government should not include Gaddafi. A senior diplomat stated, "Gaddafi will not be part of the processes that determine the future of Libya. He will not be in the room when others are hammering out a deal. And we have got him to agree to this."

One member of cabinet added, "Gaddafi is not democratic and will not be part of a post-democratic Libya." He ended by baldly acknowledging, "I have no faith in Gaddafi." One of the few tangible diplomatic wins for the AU is getting Gaddafi to agree to this plan. This achievement could have been capitalised on in more thoughtful public diplomacy, particularly to dispel concerns that SA is propping up Gaddafi.

Third, we needed to emphasise, in the process of selling this alternative game plan, the fact that NATO's involvement thwarts the geopolitical desire of African states to deliver ‘African solutions for African problems.' 

This three-pronged narrative - the story of what an alternative plan looks like; what SA's attitude towards Gaddafi is; and how the opposition to NATO's action is motivated by an honest desire for regional self-reliance- was never successfully told and sold, locally and internationally. This constitutes a failure of public diplomacy.

This failure was brought home to me when an American diplomat told me that South Africa's criticism of NATO's action had struck his political principals as "duplicitous" and a "knee-jerk response to American actions". The American double standard, rolled into this comment is, of course, beside the point. 

The official added, furthermore, that SA was starting to come across as simply preferring "status quo" positions on problems in Africa. Clearly, this official is unaware that SA has an alternative plan, that that plan is not anti-Nato so much as it is pro-‘African solutions for African problems' and he was unaware of the clarity of thought within Dirco about Gaddafi not being part of a post-liberation political landscape in Libya. This misreading by the US official is entirely understandable. It is the result of SA's public diplomacy failure. 

The truth, of course, is that even if this public diplomacy was successful, we would have struggled to deliver that solution because of the capacity constraints of the AU. One cabinet minister made it clear to me that they did not have faith in the AU.

Another official, sharing this scepticism, argued that the roadmap could, practically, be implemented successfully only if the AU made use of the skills of skilled Africans and eminent persons panels from member states. He said that the AU could not rely on officials from Addis Ababa. This dovetails with the comment of a cabinet member who bluntly told me, "The AU Commission is weak and needs strengthening."

These capacity weaknesses have different dimensions. It is not just that some officials have poor public diplomatic skill-sets. A massive weakness is that the AU remains under resourced. It is far from obvious, for example, that a peace keeping force could readily be stationed in Libya tomorrow in the event of a NATO withdrawal.

The AU needs strong member states like South Africa and Nigeria to do more to capacitate it to deliver ‘African solutions for African problems'. One official confessed his envy of the relatively more effective functioning of the European Union, as a regional body, compared to the African Union. He neglected to add, of course, that member states like France and Germany have invested in the EU in a way in which stronger, wealthier members of the AU have not done in respect of the AU. 

The consequence, as another official explained, is that the AU cannot always fulfil its mandate fully. He stated that the AU had "dropped the ball" in Madagascar because the AU lacked the resources to engage a conflict that lasted for years. He also suggested that in Cote d'Ivoire an observer mission's work was effectively rendered useless by the AU's insufficient capacity to engage its recommendations fully. So, although a cabinet minister insisted that the AU Roadmap is "the only game in town", this public commitment to the AU delivering a solution is anchored in poor discussion on the part of SA officials and diplomats about the details of how SA might help capacitate the AU so that it could be a more effective regional body.

Unless and until that happens, any public diplomacy about African political self-sufficiency will, even if well articulated publicly, convince no one.

An absence of guiding principles

Throughout this research the idea of an ‘African solution for Africa's problems' struck me as a good slogan in the face of Western hegemony but it is also, at the same time, a phrase that demands to be unpacked. In particular, in stepping back from our engagement with the crisis in Libya, I had wondered what principles informed our foreign policy thinking beyond the human rights rhetoric in the early days of democracy.

Are there moral principles that inform our actions? Constitutional principles? Economic ones? Or, perhaps, geopolitical commitments related to the AU in particular? Can the idea of ‘African solutions for African problems' itself constitute a foreign policy principle as such?

First, not one interviewee could readily articulate what our strategic commitments or the principles are that form for the foundation of our foreign policy. This in itself is a reflection that there is not yet internal consensus on this question.

Second, it is clear to me that we do not have a moral foreign policy. None of my interviewees articulated moral values or principles as the basis of our foreign policy behaviour. This, however, is unsurprising. Critics who bemoan the absence of a moral foreign policy are looking for the wrong thing in international relations.

The truth is that purely moral foreign policies do not exist anywhere in the world (or rather not consistently so), and it is not obvious that they are desirable. Foreign policies should promote the welfare of a state or region, internationally, and that is by definition an exercise in promoting self-interest.

Of course, nation states, and non-state actors, are species of moral agents. What we do affect others, and to that extent we have duties of care, at the very least. The point, however, is simple: foreign policy cannot be reduced to morality, and foreign policy is about more than morality.

Third, with regards to constitutionalism, we do expect our foreign policy to be consistent with our domestic constitutional principles and values. In this regard, however, we fall short, and there is little indication that our foreign policy is consistently and genuinely informed by a thorough commitment to project our domestic constitutional principles onto the international arena.

It is only, for example, when I raised the question of whether or not our human rights framework matters, that many hastily find themselves saying, "Yes, of course, our foreign policy is based on the values enshrined in the constitution!" But they say this after already betraying the opposite.

Two examples will suffice: one senior diplomat, Jerry Matjila, voted against a resolution at the Human Rights Council that condemned homophobia and racism in the same breath. His justification was that the memory and experiences of victims of anti-black racism would be undermined by the comparison of racism and homophobia. One of my interviewees, who used to be a close colleague of Matjila's, added, furthermore, that Matjila took this voting decision unilaterally.

The second example shocked me even more. I put it to one senior civil servant that other examples abound of where we did not promote our constitutional values and principles. For example, we have often voted against or abstained from voting in favour of resolutions condemning rogue states like Myanmar. We also seemed to have problem with condemning the use of capital punishment, even though the death penalty is unconstitutional in SA.

He responded to this by explaining to me that when SA diplomats promote SA's constitutional values, they do not always ask questions about constitutional law, but rather ask themselves what most people in fact think. Most South Africans, as a matter of empirical fact, support the death penalty and are against gay rights, he pointed out. It is therefore not obvious, he said, that the voting patterns of SA diplomats and officials offend the moral sensibilities of South Africans at large.

He also added that the strategic geopolitical interest in being a leader on the continent also meant that SA had to show solidarity with dominant views on the continent. The subtext was clear: SA's goal of being a leader within the AU might sometimes require the contradiction of our human rights jurisprudence as a strategic trade-off.

What, then, about economic considerations? What I did not manage to establish, definitively, is the role that economic interest plays in determining our foreign policy. I can, however, share two thoughts on this issue: first, the disapproval of Gaddafi, and the palpably strong desire for regional political solidarity vis-à-vis the AU as a political body, did suggest to me that one could, probably, underemphasise the role of economic gain in the case of Libya in explaining SA's position. For one thing, the SA position is, if we wanted to be reductionist about it, more anti-Nato or anti-West and certainly pro-AU, than it is pro-Gaddafi or pro-military economics.

Second, government has yet to decide how different factors - geopolitical considerations, economic self-interest, etc. - are to be weighed against each other in general. Interestingly, for example, at least one senior ANC leader, who is also a prominent cabinet minister, was deeply upset, according to one of my sources, when the Democratic Republic of Congo, a few years back, awarded some logistics contracts to Chinese companies rather than to Airports Company South Africa.

The minister clashed with former president Mbeki about whether South Africa's losing out on this contract should mean that SA must, henceforth, spend less political capital on the conflict in that region. He wanted economic returns for the political capital SA invests in the region. While Mbeki was not averse to economic gain, he clearly, if this story is accurate, did not regard economic returns on our involvement in the region as a deal-breaker. African solidarity, with or without immediate economic returns for SA, was more important.

The most obvious strategic factor that is given significant weight in our foreign policy decisions is our commitment to the project of ‘African solutions for African problems'. By this we mean, in practice, using the AU as a vehicle to deal with challenges in the region, and SA being an important player within the AU.

This explains why we ensure, so far as possible, that our foreign policy decisions cohere (and is informed by) AU positions. Of course, this strategic interest in making the AU work will never be fully realised if the capacity problems I have discussed do not get addressed effectively.

So, do we have "principles" informing our foreign policy? We do not have a moral foreign policy (but that is not obviously a bad thing). We should take our domestic constitutional principles onto the international scene (but often fail to do so). The status of economic interest in our foreign policy thinking is unclear to me.

What is most obvious is that our commitment to regional political bodies like the AU does matter, and matter hugely, because of our desire to deliver ‘African solutions for African problems'.

Final reflections

Let me conclude with some final reflections. Several thoughts linger in my mind. I have an overwhelming sense that SA does not fully appreciate the importance of seriously investing in our foreign policy. We do not expend the necessary political and material resources to ensure that we have a stronger presence within international fora and that a body like the AU might yet reach its full potential.

I can only speculate why we do not pay more attention to our foreign policy adventures. Perhaps one possibility is that foreign policy here, unlike in countries such as the United States, does not have the same domestic political significance. The internal battles within the tri-partite alliance and cross-party dialogue more broadly, do not turn fundamentally on how we perform internationally. (Though, in parenthesis, we might be tempted to now think, following the ANCYL's weekend grovelling, that hasty comments about foreign policy might well have some domestic political consequences. The example, I would argue, is isolated.)  Consequently, we do not always see the most senior or the most technically gifted appointments made within Dirco.

It is unsurprising then that many of our actions on the international stage look, to outsiders, clumsy, inconsistent, ad hoc and - in the haunting word choice of that US official - "duplicitous". These apparent weaknesses are not the result of a pernicious set of foreign policy principles. In the end, these weaknesses reflect gross underinvestment, politically and materially, in an area of government that deserves much greater attention.

Our government, and the African National Congress, would do well to look beyond the relative domestic political impotence of foreign policy debates. If we are serious about delivering ‘African solutions for African problems' then we must urgently and seriously invest in the AU and, on the domestic political scene, foreign policy, and Dirco, need to be taken much more seriously by government, and the tripartite alliance.

If we do not immediately make these political and material investments, then the slogan ‘African solutions for African problems', like its cousin ‘African Renaissance', will be banished to a political dustbin filled with rotten linguistic promises.   

Eusebius Mckaiser is a political analyst. He also teaches philosophy at Wits University. He was the 2011 Ruth First Research Fellow and delivered this lecture, based on his research findings, at Wits University this past week. 

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter