The United Nations Security Council meets on Syria at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., May 16, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

South Africa secured a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the third time on Friday. The seat offers a chance for South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to restore the country’s human rights-based foreign policy.

This latest term will be for 2019-2020.

During its January summit, the African Union (AU) endorsed South Africa’s candidacy for the seat. It was the only African country backed by the regional body. South Africa will replace Ethiopia on the Security Council, and will join Cote D’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea – both in the final year of their tenure – in the African Group.  

In bidding for the seat, South Africa declared its intention to promote an African Agenda of peace and security in the region, but it’s unclear if that will involve backing tough measures like sanctions against human rights abusers.

South Africa should use its seat to push for resolutions to stem the abuses against civilians in the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The administration of South Africa’s previous president, Jacob Zuma, actually pursued military cooperation with the South Sudanese government even as it used child soldiers. Ramaphosa’s government has a chance to set things right in South Sudan, for example, by pushing for a much-needed arms embargo.

During its first two terms on the Security Council, South Africa strayed from Nelson Mandela’s hope that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy.”

In its first term on the Security Council in 2007, South Africa voted against an important resolution calling for a cease to military attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma, joining Russia and China as they vetoed. During its second term in 2011, the country began to abstain on all votes relating to the global south after it was criticized as championing a Western agenda when it voted to authorize a no-fly zone in Libya. Just a few months after the Libya vote, it abstained on a resolution that would have “condemned grave and systematic human rights violations” in Syria.

Now, 100 years after Nelson Mandela’s birth, South Africa has an opportunity to create a new legacy on the Security Council.