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UN: Three Poor African States Key To Fate Of Iraq Resolution

  • Robert McMahon

Three poor African states have become the focus of intense lobbying by the major powers on the United Nations Security Council days ahead of a vote on a resolution to authorize military action against Iraq. The countries -- Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea -- stand to gain enormous economic benefits by siding with the United States. But they also have close ties with France, the chief U.S. opponent on the council, and fellow African states have called war a last resort.

United Nations, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- They rank among the world's poorest and least developed countries. But Angola, Guinea, and Cameroon currently hold crucial leverage with the world's most powerful countries as nonpermanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

They are among six undecided states on the council that have not yet reached final positions on a draft resolution that would authorize force to disarm Iraq (the other three are Chile, Mexico, and Pakistan). With a vote on the resolution days away, each country is coping with a diplomatic offensive from the measure's supporters, the United States and Britain, as well as from France, the chief opponent of the draft.

France and Russia have threatened a veto, but a vote of nine members would help the United States and Britain claim international backing for their efforts to seek the council's mandate to forcibly disarm Iraq. So far, only four countries are known to support the resolution: the United States, Britain, Spain, and Bulgaria.

(UN Security Council resolutions pass if they receive affirmative votes from at least nine of the 15 council members. But a "no" vote from any of the five permanent members of the Security Council would constitute a veto if the measure received the required nine votes. If a resolution failed to receive nine "yes" votes, then a "no" vote by a permanent member is not considered a veto. But the effect is the same -- the measure fails.)

The competition for votes places the African states between two countries which with they have crucial ties. So far, they have engaged in a shrewd negotiating strategy to maximize the benefits they could expect from their votes, says Joe Siegle, an expert on Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based independent policy center.

Siegle told RFE/RL that, amid genuine concerns about war, Cameroon, Guinea, and Angola recognize the value of their votes. "All of these countries are in dire need of strong international support and financial assistance, and they're in a very strategic position. And I think all three have engaged in this dialogue in a way that expresses their willingness to pivot from this position to a more favorable aid package," Siegle said.

The African states on the council were all ranked "not free" in the latest rating of the civil and political freedoms by Freedom House, the human rights watchdog group. This means these governments face fewer domestic challenges in deciding which way to vote on the Iraq resolution, Siegle said. "There aren't many checks and balances on the leaderships in these countries. That gives them greater leeway in the decision-making processes that they are undertaking on this particular vote. And, unfortunately, that means that whatever deals they do cut are going to be less subject to scrutiny on the part of the public," Siegle said.

Each state is in major need of development aid and investment. The most serious case is Angola, which the UN says has one of the world's worst humanitarian crises after emerging from 30 years of conflict.

The West African state of Guinea, meanwhile, ranked near the bottom of the latest human development index compiled by the UN, with a life expectancy of about 47. Tens of thousands of its citizens have been displaced in recent years by cross-border attacks from rebels in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Cameroon is also in poor economic condition.

But their choice in the upcoming council vote is complicated by their ties to the two main opponents on the issue of Iraq: the United States and France.

Cameroon and Guinea, both francophone countries, receive a large amount of assistance from France, but the United States provided Guinea with more aid than France last year. The United States is the largest foreign investor in Angola, followed by France. Last month, the U.S. Agency for International Development approved $15.4 million in aid for Angola.

Experts familiar with the Security Council say pressuring other members for votes is nothing new but that finesse is required.

David Scheffer, a former senior U.S. diplomat, told RFE/RL that during his time in the administration of former President Bill Clinton, there were challenges in the Security Council when it was necessary for what he called "very tough diplomacy and very expensive diplomacy" in the capitals of other council members.

But Scheffer said it is important for countries not to be treated as pawns in a big-power chess game. "You've got to be very careful that you're not trying to literally buy them off and sort of demean their diplomatic credibility and the legitimacy of their political views by simply trying to strong-arm them or leverage [things like] aid with a particular council member," Scheffer said.

Diplomats from Guinea, in particular, have been sensitive to charges they are being manipulated. Guinea's foreign minister, Francois Fall, stressed to reporters at the UN on 7 March that his country had received no offers from Washington for its vote. "I can assure you that there are no pressures being exerted by the United States on Guinea. The United States is a friend. There are discussions but there are no pressures. I can assure you of that," Fall said.

Angola's UN ambassador, Ismael Gaspar Martins, in comments to reporters this week, also dismissed any suggestions that the African states on the council were forming a voting bloc. He said these countries are more interested in battling to preserve the integrity of the Security Council while assuring the disarmament of Iraq. "We are not forming a united African front. We are trying to reach a consensus within a group of six countries to be able to act and assist in creating a consensus that we need of the council, not just of the six," Martins said.

Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea attended last month's Franco-Africa Summit in Paris, which issued a statement that called war "a last resort" and expressed support for the continuation of the UN inspections. Representatives of all three countries have also made strong statements about the need for Iraq to comply with UN disarmament resolutions, interpreted at various times as showing a move toward a pro-U.S. position. But amid the crush of media outside the council chambers this week, ambassadors from all three states have so far skillfully fended off questions about their voting intentions.