Morocco Outmanoeuvre South Africa at UN Human Rights Council

South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, was delighted when Bafana Bafana beat Morocco to reach the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals. However, Morocco’s unexpected defeat of South African Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi in the 2024 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) presidency elections was ironic.

The African Group of Ambassadors in Geneva typically nominates the candidate, but Morocco managed to insert itself as a second African candidate, undermining the consensus and forcing the 47-member council to vote.

South Africa and Morocco are bitter enemies, with Pretoria championing the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Rabat claiming it as its province. South Africa views this as Africa’s last decolonisation struggle, and Nkosi said if Zniber were elected, it would “shatter whatever shred of legitimacy this Council ever had.”

South Africa’s loss in the wider vote was attributed to several factors, including Pretoria’s strong pro-SADR stance, its ‘non-aligned’ position on Russia’s war against Ukraine, its pro-LGBTQ policies, and its high-profile charge of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). These factors could have cost Pretoria support among some African and Western members, as well as the votes of Eastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

Morocco’s 2024 UNHRC presidency was a significant loss for South Africa, as it moved the vote from the African Group to the wider council, a more favorable arena for Rabat. The ICJ-Israel case was one of the contributing factors to South Africa’s loss, as no Western nations had expressed support for the move. The US, a UNHRC member, called it “meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact.” South Africa’s 2024 UNHRC presidency could become the first international casualty of its genocide charges against Israel if the ICJ case is considered.

African Union (AU) observers told ISS Today that Morocco’s victory was largely symbolic, as the UNHRC is not very powerful and struggles to achieve legitimacy and credibility. However, Morocco likely intends to use the position to deflect criticism of its Western Sahara occupation and allegations of human rights abuses against the territory’s inhabitants.

Africa Confidential suggested Morocco had worked with Israel to defeat South Africa in the presidency poll, citing Morocco’s “de facto alliance with Israel under the Abraham Accord.” Rabat recognized Israel in 2021 in a three-cornered pact in which the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Uniting against South Africa would make sense for Morocco and Israel from a tactical perspective, as South Africa has lumped Israel and Morocco in the same basket. An AU expert doubts Israel and Morocco’s alliance, arguing that no Muslim state could afford to support Israel due to its ongoing destruction in Gaza.

North Africa has not nominated a candidate to chair the African Union (AU) this year, less than three weeks before the 2024 ordinary summit. Egypt would like the chair to exert influence in the Sudan crisis and other issues, but it last chaired in 2019.

The other option is Mauritania, which is a weak state. Algeria and South Africa are concerned that Morocco could use the position to advance its claim to Western Sahara, including sidelining or expelling the Polisario-led SADR. South Africa, despite winning international acclaim for its ICJ application, is questioning whether its resounding UNHRC defeat could cost it Western and broader support.

African GroupMoroccoNHRC presidencySouth AfricaSouth Africa's International RelationsUN Human Rights CouncilUnited Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)