SA’s UN seats hold no sway
G5 nations still rule with veto rights
SOUTH AFRICA now holds two of the world’s seemingly most important offices. • On the global economic/financial front it has taken over the chair of the Group of 20 nations. The G20, which has its roots in the International Monetary Fund, comprises the G7 (the traditional leading industrial nations) and a spread of other major developed and emerging market economies.
The G20 was formed in 1999, essentially in the wake of the “Asian contagion” economic crisis.
The group has been chaired by Canada, India, Mexico, Germany, China and Australia before SA’s accession to that seat in November 2006.
Next up will be Brazil. • On the political front, SA this year became a member of the “inner circle” of the United Nations – the Security Council. So this country sits at the top tables internationally.
But how much, ultimately, do these apparently impressive kudos of office matter to South Africa?
Does SA’s role at the G20 promise any direct or indirect benefits?
Will SA be able to exercise any real influence over the activities and organisation of the world economy? Short answer is “no”. And politically, just what genuine power – if any – comes with a seat on the Security Council? For SA, virtually none. Start with the G20. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is currently in the chair, but he will rotate the position with Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni during SA’s year of office.
Manuel has already made plenty of headlines.
But, as with the UN, it’s crucial to distinguish between what gets said and what gets done.
Manuel has called – as he has been doing for many years, way before he sat in the G20 chair – for major reforms at both the IMF and the World Bank.
He has long urged a reduced voting role for the United States and much more say for poorer nations.
Well, he has some limited agreement from the US – but not exactly on the lines Manuel wants.
Steven Wiseman reported last year in the New York Times that the Bush Administration strongly favoured a shake-up of voting rights in the IMF.
But what the US specifically called for was bigger roles for China, South Korea, Turkey and Mexico, among others.
Implicitly, the other side of the equation the US favoured was a reduction in the rights of Britain and France.
In other words, the IMF should mirror more closely the modern world, not that of its founding in Bretton Woods just before the end of the Second World War in 1945.
The US is, arithmetically anyway, much closer to the right lines than Manuel, who is naturally keen to press hardest for Africa’s case.
However, Africa’s share of the world economy has gone nowhere – but Asia’s contribution has grown immensely, though only back to where it was some 200 years ago.
In other words, Manuel will get plenty of media coverage from his time in the chair of the G20 – Mboweni less so, because good central bankers work that way – but will surely have little or nothing in the end to show for it.
There will be no immediate practical rewards for South Africa. But, vitally, the more this country is seen being the statesman on the big stage, the more opportunities it has indirectly to attract foreign financial and business confidence.
And what about the place on the UN Security Council? Don’t get carried away by this. It gives SA at least one factor in common with Algeria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Honduras and Yemen, among many other countries.
These nations all have past or present membership of the Council.
SA’s ambassador to the UN is Dumisani Kumalo.
So far all the attention he has won is condemnation for following China and Russia to keep the UN from “interfering in the internal affairs” of the brutal dictatorship controlling Myanmar (Burma).
In any case, in the Council it’s the five permanent member nations that really count.
They are the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
These are the nations that have veto rights.
As with the IMF, the special position of the US and the “big five” generally relates to the perceived global power structure when the UN was founded in 1945.
Well over half the 192 members of the UN have held, and/or are now holding, one of the seats on the Security Council. It’s hardly, therefore, an exclusive club. The crucial and obviously contentious veto power of the “big five” does matter, not temporary membership of the full Council.
Bottom line is that although membership of the Council might seem a major coup for SA, it really doesn’t mean much.
Does anyone remember, for instance, Zambia’s three times in office (1969-70, 1979-80 and 1987-88) or that Zimbabwe has twice sat on the Council, in 1983-84 and 1991-92?
Condemned for his stance on Burma. Dumisani Kumalo