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For ambassador Abdul Minty, Geneva is more than just the second home of the UN: it is a melting pot of international organisations and NGOs that can be used as a development resource for Africa.
Seven months into his posting as head of mission in Geneva, Minty, South Africa’s former representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), finds his new work busy and intriguing.
“I don’t think very many people know we have almost 40 international organisations here,” he says.
Minty rattles off some of the bigger UN agencies such as the World Health Organisation, the International Telecommunications Union, the International Labour Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation, sometimes better known by their acronyms WHO, ITU, ILO and Wipo.
The ambassador’s experience-packed CV shows he is ready to deal with a variety of peace-enabling and disarmament bodies that slot into the Geneva UN framework, including the UN Conference on Disarmament.
“Of course, the one that is highly political is the UN Human Rights Council,” says Minty.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is former South African high court and International Criminal Court judge Navi Pillay.
Some African countries have been confused by South Africa’s stance on this body on processes aimed at protecting people discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality.
Minty’s predecessor in Geneva, Jerry Matjila, now the director-general of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, told the council early last year that including sexual minorities as a group that suffers intolerance in a report on racism and intolerance would “demean the legitimate plight of the victims of racism”.
South Africa later shifted its stance when it discarded its earlier draft and went on to affirm the need to protect people from violations based on sexual orientation, leading the council to adopt a historic resolution to this effect in June.
“What it required was that we have a panel (discussion) this year,” explains Minty.
“And we had it. Both as a moderator and convener of the group, I asked African countries to raise any concerns. We also had interaction with Arab countries, with members of the Islamic Conference, with Asian countries.
“In it we said the purpose of the panel was to give an opportunity for a dialogue. We realised it was a very sensitive issue and, in many cultures and communities, these are subjects that are not spoken of openly. At the same time we cannot undermine the rights of people in terms of discrimination and violence.
“It’s an educational process that one needs to change entrenched attitudes.”
Countries that originally threatened to boycott the group instead made statements and moved the process a step further with dialogue.
Now “people are listening to each other”, Minty says.
“It may be possible to bring people together,” he asserts, noting that Brazil and South Africa are co-chairs of this group, so teamwork was needed that included some African partners.
South Africa’s role in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economic and political bloc of emerging countries is also an important part of Minty’s job because Geneva is also the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation, the arbiter for international commerce, an important area for the Brics.
Also part of the Geneva mission is South Africa’s ambassador to the WTO, Faizel Ismail, who deals with the intricacies of trade negotiations.
South Africa also has a third ambassador in this country, the ambassador to Switzerland, ambassador George Johannes, based in the Swiss capital Bern.
But as the conductor of the big symphony in Geneva, Minty has to pull together many strands.
An important one of those is the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Unctad.
“Unctad is extremely important for developing countries,” he explains, adding that “another factor that operates in Geneva is the South Centre, established by (the late Tanzanian President) Julius Nyeyere”.
He says he has “the privilege to be the convener” of the body, which is headed by Malaysian economist Martin Khor.
“It provides participation for countries that do not have large delegations here,” says Minty, explaining that the inter-government think tank provides information, research and back-up for developing countries.
However, he also expresses concern that the South Centre has warned of a loss of support for Unctad by developing nations.
Among the synergies Minty is looking to are those that involve the work of the ITU, the oldest international organisation in Geneva.
The ITU works on international telecoms, allocating global radio spectrum and satellite orbits and developing the technical standards to ensure seamless interconnection of networks.
“Now, we have just got around Africa the broadband cable undersea. But no one can really benefit from it until we have the infrastructure within the countries to link up to the sea cable.
“If we look globally, there are two areas where developing countries need a lot of assistance and have to pay attention to: that’s energy and communications.
“Without that one cannot really develop communications,” explains Minty.
“What we need to do is to try to see if we can create synergies between these international organisations on issues that are important for us.
“If one can do that, of course, one can enhance South Africa’s and Africa’s position,” says Minty.
He shrugs off the current controversy involving Turkish cellphone operator Turkcell, which has claimed in US court papers that MTN bribed Iranian officials to switch the licence for a huge chunk of the Iranian cellphone market from Turkcell to MTN.
Turkcell’s accusations include a charge that MTN persuaded the South African government to abstain from important resolutions critical of Iran in the IAEA during 2005 and 2006 when Minty was South Africa’s governor on the IAEA board.
Turkcell claims that MTN organised meetings for Iranian government officials with South African government leaders who offered Iran weapons and UN votes in exchange for a stake in Irancell to provide cellphone services.
MTN has denied the charges and so does Minty.
“I am not making any further comments,” says Minty, but adds: “I had no experience of or was aware of any pressure in regard to the IAEA vote.”
Another issue that Minty spoke of was South Africa’s nuclear intentions after statements made by President Jacob Zuma at a nuclear security summit in Seoul at the end of last month.
Some observers believed that Zuma was declaring a more independent nuclear policy in Seoul by insisting that South Africa reserved the right to enrich uranium to any level for peaceful purposes and to keep the highly-enriched uranium it still has from the nuclear weapons programme it abandoned more than 20 years ago. It has done this despite pressure from the US which is collecting highly enriched uranium from around the world, to prevent it being used to make nuclear weapons.
Minty attended the Seoul conference because the government is still tapping his vast experience of disarmament. He said Zuma’s speech dealt with the management of nuclear waste.
“There is no reason why South Africa should give up its highly enriched uranium because it is South Africa’s,” he says, adding: “We declare to the world and to the IAEA what stocks we have. They come and inspect and weigh it. We are under safeguards.”
Minty insists that South Africa observes the highest standards of nuclear safety, noting that in recent IAEA stress tests at the country’s sole nuclear power plant, Koeberg, “we have come out tops”.
“We are complying with all NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) regulations and the IAEA… We are taking care of nuclear safety and security.” – Independent Foreign Service