Morocco Outmanoeuvres SA At the UN Human Rights Council

Pretoria’s heavy defeat in the vote for the UNHRC presidency suggests its foreign policy postures are costing it support.

No one in South Africa was more delighted than International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor when the national soccer team Bafana Bafana beat Morocco this week to reach the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals. ‘Bafana did us the job of returning the favour by 2-nil,’ Pandor beamed at a press conference on 31 January.

The ironic ‘favour’ returned was Moroccan Ambassador Omar Zniber’s unexpected defeat of South African Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi – by 30 votes to 17 – in the 10 January elections for the 2024 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) presidency. Morocco clearly outmanoeuvred South Africa, bypassing the customary procedures.

It was Africa’s turn to nominate a country for the presidency, which rotates among the world’s five regions. The African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva typically selects the candidate, making the council vote a formality. The African ambassadors nominated South Africa.

But Morocco managed to insert itself as a second African candidate, undermining the consensus and forcing the 47-member council to vote, said diplomatic sources in Addis Ababa. Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, confirmed with ISS Today that this was what happened.

The African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva had nominated South Africa as the region’s candidate

That Morocco gunned for South Africa was no surprise. The two are bitter enemies, mostly because Pretoria has championed the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), while Rabat claims it as its province. South Africa regards this as Africa’s last decolonisation struggle, and just before the vote, Nkosi said if Zniber were elected, it would ‘shatter whatever shred of legitimacy this Council ever had.’

But why did South Africa lose the wider vote (and so badly)? Africa Confidential attributed it to several factors: Pretoria’s strong pro-SADR stance; its ‘non-aligned’ (some would say pro-Moscow) position on Russia’s war against Ukraine; its pro-LGBTQ policies; and most recently, its high-profile charge of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Scanning the 47 council members, one could see how Pretoria’s positions on Western Sahara and Ukraine, and its activism on Israel, could have cost it support among some African, and perhaps all Western, members. Its Russia-Ukraine posture probably would have also cost it the votes of Eastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

In that sense, Morocco was shrewd to shift the vote from the African Group to the wider council – a more favourable arena for Rabat. Of the possible contributing factors to South Africa’s loss, the ICJ-Israel case is perhaps the most interesting.

The ICJ hearing in The Hague was to begin just a day after the Geneva vote, and South Africa’s detailed application had been public since 29 December. No Western nations had expressed support for the move, and the US, a UNHRC member, called it ‘meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact.’

Morocco was shrewd to shift the vote to the wider council – a more favourable arena for Rabat

The role each of these factors played is hard to say, since the ballot was secret. But if the ICJ case was among them, South Africa’s 2024 UNHRC presidency would be the first international casualty of its genocide charges against Israel. Others might follow, including threats to its trade preferences in the US.

Morocco’s victory was largely symbolic, African Union (AU) observers told ISS Today. The UNHRC isn’t a very powerful body, struggling to achieve legitimacy and credibility as it votes pretty much according to national rather than purely moral positions.

Nevertheless, to head any UN body is prestigious, and Morocco probably intends to use it to deflect criticism of its Western Sahara occupation and allegations that it’s committing human rights abuses against the territory’s inhabitants. In that sense, beating South Africa was a double victory for Morocco – winning not only the position, but also denying it to perhaps its greatest African rival.

Africa Confidential also suggested Morocco had worked with Israel to defeat South Africa in the presidency poll. It cited Morocco’s ‘de facto alliance with Israel under the Abraham Accord. Rabat recognised Israel in 2021 in a three-cornered pact in which the United States recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.’

Uniting against South Africa would make sense for Morocco and Israel, from a tactical perspective. South Africa has lumped Israel and Morocco in the same basket, as when Pandor last year described how she campaigned to prevent Israel from being recognised as an AU observer. She said Israel and Morocco were both ‘oppressors’ and ‘colonial occupiers … playing a very negative role in Africa’ by using their ‘financial muscle’ to win the support of African countries.

Uniting against South Africa would make sense for Morocco and Israel, from a tactical perspective

An AU expert who requested anonymity was sceptical that Israel and Morocco were in cahoots, suggesting that no Muslim state could afford to be seen backing Israel in light of the devastation it’s wreaking in Gaza. But Morocco wouldn’t of course, go public with any deal it might have cut with Israel.

Morocco’s controversial return to the AU in 2017, bitterly opposed by South Africa, continues to be disruptive across Africa, mainly because of its deep enmity with its neighbour Algeria, a strong South Africa ally, also largely over Western Sahara. ‘It is in fact paralysing the continent,’ one AU observer said.

For instance, less than three weeks before the AU’s 2024 ordinary summit, North Africa hasn’t nominated a candidate to chair the continental body this year. It is the region’s turn to take the position, but officials in Addis Ababa say North Africa is still ‘consulting.’

The AU expert said Egypt would like the chair, as that would enable it to exert influence in the Sudan crisis and other issues. But it last chaired in 2019 – it wouldn’t look good to chair again so soon. The other option was Mauritania, ‘but it is a very weak state,’ the expert said.

The concerns of Algeria, and its supporters on this issue, like South Africa, are that if Morocco were elected AU chair, it would use the position to advance its claim to Western Sahara. That would include sidelining or expelling the Polisario-led SADR, which claims to represent the territory as an independent state.

For South Africa, even though it has won widespread international acclaim for its ICJ application, the question is whether its resounding UNHRC defeat was a warning that its foreign postures could cost it Western, and perhaps broader, support.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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