Time for Africa to push for global south voices at the UN decision making table

Heads of state and their representatives at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Heads of states and governments have been meeting for the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The main themes under discussion were: the international refugee and migrant crisis; a progress report on the UN’s sustainable development goals; climate change; global health and the UN Secretary General’s peace building fund.

While these are viewed as the immediate threats to global peace and security, their impact is felt most acutely in the global south. And more specifically, within Africa.

The refugee and migrant crisis loomed large at the General Assembly. But it appears only to have made it to the top of the agenda in the wake of an influx of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe.

The truth is that a large number of African countries have suffered the predicaments associated with the refugee problem for decades. Almost 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted in poor countries, mostly in Africa. The number is constantly growing because of violent conflicts, famine and political instability. In the past few weeks the number of refugees from South Sudan was reported to have surpassed the one million mark.

It’s good news that refugees made it to the top of the agenda. But the fact that the issue was prioritised because of the Europe migrant crisis appears to fit into a pattern of continued disregard for Africa’s concerns, especially by the UN Security Council. Africa’s view on how best to approach a range of issues – from peace and security challenges to development goals – count for nought.

The negative implications of this disconnect can be felt across a wide range of issues. It’s within this context that there’s a need for high spirited advocacy for better representation of Africa and other regions of the global south in the UN Security Council.

The UN Security Council is at any one time composed of five permanent veto wielding powers and 10 non-permanent members. They are elected by the General Assembly with a two-year mandate.

Africa’s voice ignored

The truth is that Africa, despite the rambling annual speeches of its leaders at the UN, is rarely heard when it comes to decision making. This is the preserve of the Security Council, the sole and ultimate decision making organ of the General Assembly’s deliberations.

The negative implications of the disconnect between Africa and the power houses at the UN is perhaps best illustrated by the current cynical situation in Libya.

In the wake of the Arab Spring that spread to Libya, the African Union persistently called for a peaceful political solution in resolving the Libyan crisis. But the UN Security Council unilaterally adopted resolution 1973 in March 2011. The resolution called for the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. This paved the way for NATO’s military actions.

The consequence, in the aftermath of Libya’s bombing, has been the destruction of the country’s state system. This is the genesis of a protracted regional socioeconomic and political crisis across the Sahel region and beyond. The Sahel region is a belt running through about 10 countries, from western to the eastern part of Africa. It is sandwiched between the Sahara desert to the north and savanna to the south.

Another example revolves around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year marked the first anniversary of the adoption of the 17 goals. The UN forum reviewed the successes and challenges of goals projected to be attained by the year 2030. Their eventual attainment under the draft Addis Ababa Action Agenda relies heavily on new investments.

For these radical and transformative goals to be achieved, Africa needs to be well represented at the top echelons of UN decision making organs and agencies. This is especially important given that the SDGs are not legally binding. Their integration into regional and national development blueprints would therefore ensure that they are in sync with the UN agenda.

The other key agenda at the General Assembly was global health, with a specific focus on antimicrobial resistance. The urgency of this issue is amplified by the fact that this was only the fourth assembly in the UN’s history to discuss global health challenges.

The devastating impact of antimicrobial resistance in Africa and other developing countries was recently highlighted by the World Health Organisation’s specialist Dr Keiji Fukuda. He projected that, at the current rate of infections, antimicrobial resistance is likely to claim more lives than cancer by 2050.

This is likely to be a major blow to mostly developing countries, in particular poorly resourced Africa. This requires closer collaboration and involvement of the continent’s leadership in key UN organs and agencies with African countries.

What the African Union can do

However, the push for permanent representation for Africa on the UN Security Council needs to be intrinsic. This should involve a genuine concern by African leaders and policy makers to position the continent as a key global actor. This should be motivated not by self-aggrandisement but by a genuine desire to improve ordinary Africans' welfare.

For a start, the African Union should adopt a common foreign policy framework. This would ensure that the continent has a voice in the resolutions taken by the UN Security Council, which often have an impact on the continent.

The ongoing campaign for the leadership of the World Health Organisation is one step in the right direction. Africa has rallied behind the candidature of Dr Tedros Adhanon as its preferred candidate for director-general.

On its part, the Security Council should be more open to reforms in keeping with the shifting international balance of power. This is likely to guard the UN against repeating political, constitutional and legal mistakes that led to the collapse of its predecessor, the League of Nations.

The contemporary leaders of the victorious countries in the post-war era, who were vanguard states at the time that the UN was formed, must understand that the world is steadily transitioning to a multipolar systemic balance of power. The UN Security Council needs to reflect and be a truer representative of the emerging faces and voices of a contemporary “United Nations”.

The Conversation

Sekou Toure Otondi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.