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Can SADC Facilitate a Sustainable Solution to Lesotho’s Crisis?
Can SADC Facilitate a Sustainable Solution to Lesotho’s Crisis?
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
SADC Facilitator, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during a meeting with Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and other leaders of the Coalition government at the Lesotho State House, 31 July 2015. CGIS
Commentary / Africa

Can SADC Facilitate a Sustainable Solution to Lesotho’s Crisis?

How the 17-18 August summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) handles the complex situation in Lesotho will matter well beyond the borders of that small enclave state of less than two million inhabitants entirely surrounded by South Africa, because it will say much about the regional organisation’s ability not just to manage explosive crises but to resolve them.

Observers watched in dismay last year as a coalition government collapsed in slow motion, forcing SADC to intervene. Amid institutional manipulation, corruption and violence that pitted powerful political and security interests against each other, Prime Minister Tom Thabane prorogued (discontinued without dissolving) parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote. As tensions mounted, however, he fled to South Africa in August 2014, claiming the recently-fired Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander, Lt General Tlali Kamoli, had launched a coup.

SADC contained the crisis, brokering a twin track “solution” that involved deploying South African police to guard installations and key political figures and attempting to remove contentious military and police commanders; and advancing elections by two years, to early 2015. The issues that generated the crisis, however, were put on ice, with an ill-defined commitment to address them after the polls.

The country’s complex mixed direct constituency and proportional representation electoral system helped smaller parties and gave individual politicians significant power in the February 2015 elections that were won by a former prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, head of a seven-party coalition his Democratic Congress dominates. His main support comes, ironically, from the Lesotho Congress of Democrats, the party he broke from in 2012. It is led by Mothetjoa Metsing, Thabane’s coalition partner until last August, when, as an investigation into his activites progressed to prosecution for corruption, he partly precipitated the crisis by breaking with the prime minister.

SADC in effect withdrew as Mosisili formed a coalition designed to keep Thabane from power. This was a costly mistake. In June, Lt General Maaparankoe Mohao, a suspended former LDF commander (and a respected ex-commander of SADC’s own standby force), was shot dead by soldiers loyal to General Kamoli. The government said Mohao was under investigation for plotting a coup and was killed resisting arrest. His family says he was murdered in cold blood.

Several opposition leaders had already fled to South Africa, claiming plots to assassinate them as part of a general government clampdown. Promised reforms were not implemented, while Kamoli was reinstated, security chiefs allegedly loyal to Thabane were removed, and Mohao’s death roused SADC from its passivity.

As chair of SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defence and Security, South African President Jacob Zuma sent his defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and the foreign ministers of Namibia and Zimbabwe to look into matters. Their report caused him to dispatch his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa (SADC’s facilitator on Lesotho), who reported on the deteriorating security situation to an extraordinary SADC summit in July. It established a commission of inquiry into Mohao’s death, the contributing factors and relevant antecedents and authorised it to create an “oversight committee” to provide early warning and facilitate a new intervention if needed. That was an implicit acknowledgement of SADC’s failure to institutionalise such a capacity for many years. The summit also recommended constitutional and security reforms that it said would be reviewed later this year.

Government and opposition submitted separate motions, suggesting additional matters for the commission to examine. Ramaphosa reportedly agreed to expand the terms of reference, but then said this required a decision at the August summit.

The commission is a unique intervention. No members are Basotho – the people who make up 99 per cent of Lesotho’s population. The chair is Botswana High Court Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi. Its 60-day mandate will need to be extended if it is to consider the core and contributing factors of the crisis thoroughly, but how its findings are to be addressed and by whom remains unclear. The SADC tribunal has been ruled out, and many fear Lesotho’s own institutions lack capacity and political will to deal with them. The summit must consider how SADC can act effectively while respecting Lesotho’s sovereignty and what to do if the commission’s recommendations are not accepted by one or more key elements in the country.

The opposition wants direct Basotho involvement in the commission, public hearings and findings to be prosecutable in Lesotho courts. SADC and Ramaphosa must ensure the commission addresses any concerns of bias. Silence would compound tensions.

This is an important test for SADC’s conflict management credibility. Previous interventions have failed to address major causal factors or help hold to account those responsible for illegal behaviour, even murder. In Zimbabwe and Madagascar, SADC contained crises but unrealistically expected local politicians to cooperate to find a lasting solution in the national interest. That approach may promote short-term stability but can favour incumbents and even reinforce structural inequities. While only the Basotho can negotiate a genuine solution, the summit is an opportunity for reflection and tangible commitment to support a process that strengthens institutional capacities and whose minimum goals – depoliticisation of the security sector and a measure of accountability – may be difficult to reconcile with continuation of Kamoli in office.


Senior Consultant, Southern Africa
Ilija Prachkovski
Former Intern, Southern Africa Project
Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.