Apartheid & The United Nations: The International Debate Over Economic Sanctions

South African apartheid laws were an institutionalized form of racial oppression and domination design to maintain white supremacy over a largely African population. International condemnation for this state-sponsored segregation was widespread, especially in developing countries struggling to overthrow the yoke of colonialism. Calls for economic sanctions were debated heavily in the United Nations, and tensions developed as a result of opposing views approaching the international community’s responsibilities and influence regarding apartheid’s resolution. This paper explores the domestic situation regarding apartheid and race relations in South Africa as it relates to the international community. Western powers approached the controversy from a realist philosophical perspective, emphasizing power relations and international stability, while developing countries and anti-apartheid movements approached these racial tensions with an idealist perspective, emphasizing social justice and human rights concerns. I propose that it was the resulting tension from these conflicting philosophies that obstructed and delayed the United Nations consensus regarding policy and involvement in South Africa.
In the 1940s the Afrikaner National Party gained a majority in South African politics. This party invented apartheid, a system of of racial separation officially enacted in 1948. Apartheid was designed to subjugate the majority of the population under a minority (20 percent) white rule. The Population Registration Act of 1950 required that all citizens be racially categorized and carry passbooks to identify themselves. Each racial category was restricted to specific areas, and non-white populations were prohibited from participating in the (un)representative democracy. The different racial classifications experienced vastly different realities, with non-whites having limited access to such essentials as clean water, competent doctors, social services such as transportation, The right to even non-violent protest was revoked, and severe responses to civil disobedience gained international disapproval (Allen, Carter, Chokski, Gupta, & Martin, 1995). According to Reddy, the segregation of racial categories “in all areas of public life created a social structure where class hierarchy largely overlapped with race and a political system that was democratic for whites and authoritarian towards blacks” (2010, p. 24).
In 1952 various developing countries signed a communication to the United Nations Secretary General, expressing “the opinion that race conflict in South Africa not only constituted a gross violation of basic human rights, but  also  threatened  international  peace” (Brits, 2005, p. 758), and requesting the urgent attention of the General Assembly. Many of these countries were in the process of recovering from the colonization of their own lands by various Western powers, and therefore had sympathy for South Africa’s black population. India was one of the loudest voices calling for the dismantling of apartheid. South Africa had acquired a large number of Indian indentured servants, and this population had grown to make a considerable segment of the oppressed population. India first introduced the issue of South Africa’s unjust practices to the international arena in 1946, and Mahatma Gandhi was active in the struggle against racist oppression in both India and South Africa, strongly linking the two efforts. Because the British colonization of India came to an end around the same time that South Africa implemented its apartheid practices, helping to nonviolently bring an end to apartheid became a high priority foreign policy objective for India (Veney, 1999, pp. 321-322). Many other emerging post-colonial nations stood behind India’s calls for justice, which manifested into demands for economic sanctions.
These groups operated from an Idealist standpoint. They viewed apartheid as an institutional arrangement that required alteration to preserve the dignity of the South African people, regardless of race. They stressed the “principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another” (Wilson, 1918, p. 40). These Idealist countries enacted their emphasis on social justice in their foreign policy, which they based on ethical standards, and in many cases was a response to their own previous colonization and empathy. They applied the ideals they had created domestically during their decolonization to the international arena and sought to attain the same level of freedom for all subjugated people in the world, especially focusing on apartheid. India and other developing countries used the United Nations as a platform to address their human rights concerns, which indicates their commitment to international law and global cooperation.
It seems to be a trend that communities who have been colonized tend to be more globally attuned because they recognize how dramatic oppression and subjugation can be. As marginalized peoples, they recognize the power that resides in one’s relations with other peoples. This recognition and their lack of political clout and power likely influence developing states’ reliance on international institutions, such as the United Nations, to approach problems in the international arena. Unfortunately, Western powers were operating from a Realist standpoint and paid only superficial attention if their foreign policy to calls for social justice.
Support for sanctions against South Africa grew far beyond the United Nations. According to Thörn, “a transnational anti-apartheid network connected thousands of groups and organizations, including solidarity organizations, unions, churches, women’s, youth, and student organizations in more than 100 countries” (2006, p. 285). In the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounced his support for racial equality in South Africa, claiming that “freedom, dignity, and justice” should be protected global human rights, applying equally to those in America and in South Africa (Hostetter, 2007, p. 135). Many Western powers, especially and primarily the United States, claimed to represent freedom and liberty throughout the world, yet were reluctant to support anti-apartheid sanctions. If India can be seen as leading the push for sanctions in the United Nations, then the United States can be seen as the leader of the Western powers who struggled to balance their countries’ beliefs and values, strategic interests, security and alliance concerns, and economic interests.
Apartheid took place during the Cold War, when Western states were primarily in support of and in alliance with the United States. The United States was seen as the superpower of the bipolar free world, constantly at battle with the Communist threat of the Soviet Union. The United States and other formerly imperial states, such as Britain and France, frequently reiterated their positions during this period, stressing the importance of protecting democracy and upholding Western values. The United States’ state department emphasized “traditional US values such as freedom and democracy to win worldwide support for its drive against Soviet expansion, …[yet] its own domestic racial policies were incompatible with democratic values” (Brits, 2005, p. 359-360). The United States still employed a system of segregation in of its own domestic policies until 1965, and so was naturally reluctant to take up India’s call for international pressure on South Africa from the United Nations. When approaching the issue of South African apartheid, United States policymakers were keenly aware of the inequalities and discriminatory practices of the United States. Most US policy-makers agreed that it would be detrimental to their relations with South Africa if apartheid was singled out in the United Nations. They felt that a condemnation of South Africa in the United Nations must be avoided and that racial problems should be addressed generally to avoid singling out South Africa (Brits, 2005, p. 765). They did this in order to avoid any sort of confrontation regarding their own racial inequalities, and be thus exposed for what they were doing to undermine the freedoms they claimed to stand for. According to Thomson, “the very premise of apartheid attacked the basic principles that formed the foundations of Western democracy” and South Africa’s human rights abuses undermined the strategic and economic opportunities it had to offer the West (2005, p. 124). Third world countries were highly critical of Western powers who claimed to stand for freedom and human rights, yet did nothing to help create these things in other countries struggling to overcome the lasting impacts of colonization.
The United States’ top priority during the Cold War was the containment of Communism, and this is evident in the actions taken with regards to apartheid. South Africa was of strategic interest to the United States for its ideological stance against Communism, for its geographic location as a route to the oil reserves of the Middle East, and for its large mineral resources. The South African government welcomed foreign investment and the United States had an open-door economic policy, which led to heavy investment by transnational corporations and complicated the United States’ relations with South Africa (Thomson, 2005). Many Western companies were highly involved in the South African economy and resisted any type of trade embargo. General Motors, Ford, Daimler, and IBM were later accused of assisting South African security forces in perpetuating the system of apartheid (Friedman, 2009). The United States and other Western powers could not support economic sanctions against South Africa because so many of their own companies would have been negatively affected as well. These strategic and economic interests conflicted with the United States’ promotion of its own values overseas (Thomson, 2005). Western states with the closest ties to South Africa (including the three Western permanent members of the UN security council) were more reluctant to apply sanctions, and they attempted to delay the involvement of the United Nations for as long as they possibly could (Berber & Spicer, 1979). These Western leaders used the power they had in the Security Council to stave off plans for economic sanctions so that they could continue to profit from their relationship with the South African government.
From the 1950s on, the United States “consistently pursued three objectives in [South] Africa: expanding American business, installing moderate blacks in power and countering Soviet influence” (Mittelman, 1979, p. 686). These objectives reveal the United States’ disregard for Idealistic endeavors with international organizations and preference for preserving Western access to resources and power. The United States placed itself in a self-defeating stance regarding apartheid that essentially undermined US credibility in the international arena, creating “a dichotomy. Washington DC was simultaneously operating short-term and long-term strategies that failed to complement each other” (Thomson, 2010, p. 108). As international pressure on South Africa grew, US policymakers became more and more comfortable confronting South Africa’s policies through their rhetoric and diplomatic symbolism, yet they refused to utilize economic sanctions against apartheid and their threats remained empty (Thomson, 2010, p. 115). Western powers privileged transnational business in their refusal to enact economic sanctions, placing their economic interests above the need for international human rights protections. The United States consistently vetoed calls for sanctions against South Africa and expressed its desire to persuade rather than coerce South Africa to alter its racial policies (Brits, 2005, p. 776-777). In short, Western powers leveraged their power within the United Nations to protect their values, strategic interests, and economic interests at the expense of South Africans’ human rights.
The United States and other Western powers operated from a Realist perspective during  much of the Cold War. Their concern lay with preserving the status quo and thus their power. They acted to secure access to resources and strategic interests, and all other concerns were assigned a secondary priority to these concerns of power. For Realists, securing and protecting economic interests is crucial to the state’s survival, and survival is always the highest priority. The United States and other Western powers attempted to avoid any direct confrontation with South Africa in order to preserve the precarious balance of power. Realists do not place much faith in international organizations’ ability to govern the world, hence the disregard shown to India and other developing nations which repeatedly campaigned for economic sanctions through the United Nations. This is a result from the Realist line of thinking “that the highest moral act of all, in international relations, is the preservation of the state in acompeting world system” [emphasis mine] (Thomson, 2005, p. 133). From the Western Realist perspective, a different morality exists when dealing in the international arena than what operates at a domestic level. Hence, they were not concerned with others’ domestic policies unless it posed a direct threat to their power. For Realists dealing with the Cold War, ensuring stability and strategic resources was the top priority, high above other states’ domestic affairs. Irwin highlights the United States’ focus on economic gain, preservation of power, and neglect to address universal moral principles: “stated plainly, the United States viewed the debate over South Africa through the lens of the Cold War. South Africa’s racial policies were not so much morally reprehensible as they were strategically inconvenient” (2009, p. 911).
Realist reasoning that the international arena is anarchic and that policy makers have different moral standards/obligations contributed to the United States’ support of numerous authoritarian regimes in the long fight against Communism (Thomson, 2005). However, mounting international concern about the evils of apartheid and its effect on the international system continued to grow. The United States gradually reduced its strategic ties with South Africa “in order to reinforce human rights commitments,” but the each administration refused to agree to economic sanctions, because “the South African market was far too profitable for corporate America for such punitive action to be taken” (Thomson, 2005, p. 135). America insisted that through the corporate influence of an international business presence, South Africa would be motivated to alter its laws, but in reality this simply endorsed a business presence in South Africa without imposing any requirements on those businesses (Thomson, 2010, p. 117).
As African nations and other post-colonial nations gained their independence across the globe, international pressure on apartheid continued to grow. Events such as the Sharpeville massacre highlighted the brutality of apartheid and crystallized support for the movement (Reddy, 2007, p. 13). As pressure from the public grew, the debate increased inside the United Nations regarding whether the United Nations had the right to intervene in domestic disturbances within a state. Western powers interpreted the UN Charter to say that they could only intervene if there was a threat to international stability, and developing nations struggled to prove this argument in order to get support for the fight against apartheid (Irwin, 2009, pp. 913-914). These arguments over semantics stemmed from two opposing views of the purpose of the United Nations. Developing nations calling for the immediate end of apartheid used the United nations “as a mechanism for transforming the existing world order” (Irwin, 2009, p. 916), which reflected their Idealist values emphasizing justice through international law. Western powers saw the United Nations as a way to establish “consensus on the Cold War” (Irwin, 2009, p. 916) and garner support for their individual endeavors, which reflects the Realist philosophy that places economic and security interests much higher than human rights issues. Western leaders were much more preoccupied with how best to preserve their hegemony and did not emphasize moral dilemmas that would undermine their strategic and economic superiority (Irwin, 2009, p. 919).
These fundamentally opposing viewpoints led to a deadlock in the debate on sanctions in the United Nations, and to work around this, the UN “launched an international campaign against apartheid to encourage committed governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals to implement a wide range of measures to isolate” South Africa’s policymakers (Reddy, 2007, p. 14). This intensified the movement against the South African policy of apartheid and empowered people across the globe to work towards human equality without having to rely on their government’s support. By the 1980s the international pressure for economic sanctions against South Africa was deafening. Western leaders were still committed to protecting their country’s economic interests in South Africa and resisted the call to impose sanctions. In 1986, the United States Congress voted to override a presidential veto to prohibit American business and ban trade to and from South Africa. In 1990, South African president de Klerk dismantled the remaining apartheid laws with the support of a strong majority of the white population (Statutes, 1986). Sanctions were enacted late enough that there were significant alternative factors feeding into the decision to dismantle apartheid. The fall of the Soviet Union, the mental fatigue of the white minority population, the negative impacts apartheid had on various industries, mounting debts, the arms embargo, and the peaceful figure of Nelson Mandela, among other things, had a profound impact on South Africa’s decision to dismantle apartheid (Laverty, 2009).
Opposing ideas of how best to use international organizations, such as the United Nations, led to a stalemate between the West and the developing world when discussing South African apartheid laws. India and the developing world sought to use the United Nations to secure equality of life for all human beings, while the United States and the West used the United Nations to support their ample power and avoided dealing with human rights issues in any meaningful way. This decades-long debate illustrates just how fundamentally different Realist and Idealist philosophies are in their approaches toward international institutions. Just as the United States fought a war of ideals against the Soviet Union during the Cold War period, the Western powers and developing powers were caught in a debate based on their philosophical standpoints, which crippled the United Nations’ ability to leverage any sort of meaningful action against South African apartheid until the system had nearly collapsed of its own accord. Once again, the champion of freedom – the United States – used its international power to avoid confrontation and to secure its economic and strategic acquisitions at the expense of third world people’s most basic rights.
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