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South Africa Unrepentant Over UN Security Council Role

South Africa's two year term on the UN Security Council, which ended on December 31, was colored by controversy. Its votes on Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran drew criticism from the United States and other countries, as well as from human rights groups disappointed over its positions.

At the United Nations last July, there was uncharacteristically undiplomatic language directed at South Africa.

"I think he is out of touch with trends in his own country," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said, referring to then South African President Thabo Mbeki, after South Africa had helped block a sanctions resolution against Zimbabwe's rulers.

And early in its two year term, South Africa voted against a resolution demanding an end to human rights abuses in Burma, much to the dismay of the human rights community.

"South Africa, which in many respects embodied so much hope in so many different ways, and interestingly at home still has a pretty good track record of democratic behavior," Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch said. "And yet when it looks outward it refuses to address these things or wish the Security Council or the international community to do these things."

South Africa says its positions have been misrepresented.

Outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Dumisani Kumalo maintains that dissenting votes on Zimbabwe and Burma were simply votes against considering these issues in the UN Security Council.

He says they should not be interpreted as blocking a human rights agenda. "We didn't want human rights to be used as a tool: 'If I don't like you I trot out human rights violations that you may have' but when it is Guantanamo Bay," Kumalo said. "They keep quiet and you know when it is Gaza they keep quiet."

He says the US and others willfully mischaracterized South Africa's policies.

"We didn't do things the way the British and the Americans wanted us to do them and if you don't do it like the big ones, the French and the Americans and the British, the way they want to do them, then you are a cheeky African, well I am happy being a cheeky African," Kumalo assert.

Responding to his comments, Britain's UN ambassador, Sir John Sawyers said in a statement that Ambassador Kumalo is an "outstanding public servant" and "personal friend" but also described him as a "bit of a maverick."

Even though South Africa's Security Council's term is now over, Ambassador Kumalo says he hopes his country will continue to play an increasingly important role in global politics.