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South Africa Wants Seat on UN Security Council - 2004-09-27

South Africa's president on Friday announced his country's candidacy for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, which has been discussing the addition of new members for more than a decade. Analysts say the announcement was carefully choreographed to keep from alienating other African nations hoping to gain a permanent seat.

President Thabo Mbeki chose not to announce South Africa's bid to become a permanent member of U.N. Security Council while he was in New York for the recent U.N. special session. He waited until speaking to a holiday crowd in the South African mining city of Kimberly on Friday.

"Discussions are going on about the restructuring of the Security Council, and whenever the moment comes where United Nations has got to take a decision in that matter, South Africa is ready to serve on that Security Council as a permanent member, to serve the people of Africa and the people of the world," he announced.

Over the weekend, some local news media said South Africa has placed itself in competition with other African countries, namely Nigeria and Egypt, for a spot on the Security Council. The Department of Foreign Affairs put out a statement Sunday rejecting that as "unfortunate and regrettable" speculation.

African leaders have long argued that the continent deserves two seats on the Security Council. So South Africa says having more than one African candidate does not necessarily mean competition.

The director of the Johannesburg-based Center for Policy Studies, Chris Landsberg, says South Africa is trying very hard to have its bid for a seat on the Security Council seen as an African initiative, not a South African one.

"First of all, they have ambitions. There is absolutely no question that they see themselves not only as an African leader of sorts, but they also harbor global southern power ambitions," said Mr. Landsberg. "There's no doubt about that. But the question is how has South Africa gone about managing its ambitions, and I really think they did it very smartly."

The leaders of India, Brazil, Germany and Japan together announced their nations' candidacy for seats on an expanded Security Council, at the U.N. meeting in New York last week.

South Africa last year launched a trilateral commission with India and Brazil, two other countries with powerful yet still developing economies. One of the group's stated goals is reforming the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Landsberg says Mr. Mbeki spoke with the other leaders in New York, but made a calculated decision to announce South Africa's candidacy at home, in an effort to keep from alienating other African countries.

"What South Africa has done, basically, is that in line with its stated policy and committed policy of not wanting to come across as a hedgemon or bullying power in Africa, it tread very carefully on this issue of the U.N. Security Council, where it is a question of winning over the confidence and support of other countries," he said.

The push to reform the U.N. Security Council is not new. It started in the 1970's, when critics began calling for change to reflect modern reality in a body that was set up just after World War II. But that reform movement died out, and has only recently been resurrected.

In part, its resurgence is fueled by poor, developing countries who believe they do not have a big enough voice in the way global decisions are made. The Security Council is composed of five permanent members, China, Britain, France, Russia, the United States, and 10 elected members which have a two-year term.

Mr. Landsberg says a second driving force is many countries' concern about what they see as the dominance of the United States in world affairs, especially in the last few years.

"The irony is that fallout from the Iraq invasion, and in particular what is perceived by many states in the world, the perceived penchant for unilateralism by the United States has ironically triggered this debate with unbelievable fervor and passion and commitment,"

Mr. Landsberg says reforming the Security Council will be a long, challenging process. It is not as simple as just choosing new permanent members. It will require changing the U.N. charter, and he believes it will probably be three to five years before reform becomes a reality.