United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa

Responding to the growing condemnation of apartheid and outcry over repressive measures taken in 1977, the U.N. Security Council imposed an unprecedented mandatory arms embargo on South Africa.

Summary of Event

Since its introduction in the 1940’s, South Africa’s policy of apartheid, or racial “apartness,” had aroused significant controversy. By the 1970’s, apartheid had become one of the central issues of world politics, and opponents used many different forums to pressure South Africa to dismantle its discriminatory policies. At the United Nations, one of the world’s most prominent forums for consideration of human rights questions, representatives of the young African states regularly raised the question of sanctions to prompt the pressure of world opinion against South Africa. Arguing that the continuation of apartheid threatened international peace, in 1977 they convinced the U.N. Security Council to take the unprecedented step of imposing a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa. This was an important but largely symbolic step of progress in the development of modern human rights. Apartheid;U.N. arms embargo
South Africa;U.N. arms embargo
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[kw]United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa (Nov. 4, 1977)
[kw]Arms Embargo on South Africa, United Nations Imposes an (Nov. 4, 1977)
[kw]Embargo on South Africa, United Nations Imposes an Arms (Nov. 4, 1977)
[kw]South Africa, United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on (Nov. 4, 1977)
Apartheid;U.N. arms embargo
South Africa;U.N. arms embargo
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[g]North America;Nov. 4, 1977: United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa[02990]
[g]United States;Nov. 4, 1977: United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa[02990]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 4, 1977: United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa[02990]
[c]United Nations;Nov. 4, 1977: United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa[02990]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 4, 1977: United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa[02990]
Botha, Pieter W.
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights
Harriman, Leslie O.
Young, Andrew

Conflicts and confrontations within South Africa periodically drew unwelcome attention and intensified the pressures on the government to begin steps away from the white-dominated society to a society which granted rights, political participation, and opportunities to the majority of the population. In 1960, authorities fired on a crowd of black South Africans in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, killing 69 and wounding 180. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) A similar massacre took place in 1976 in Soweto. Soweto student rebellion (1976) In the aftermath of each of these events, the U.N. Security Council passed resolutions condemning the violence and calling on South Africa to abandon apartheid, but efforts to apply further sanctions through the United Nations were blocked by France, Great Britain, and the United States, which used their vetoes as permanent members of the Security Council. South Africa’s contributions to armed conflicts in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South-West Africa (Namibia) threatened to provoke regional conflict if unchecked.

The polarization between South Africa and its opponents intensified. On top of the ongoing issues of Zimbabwe and Namibia, in 1975 South Africa announced the independence of the Bantustan of the Transkei. This was universally denounced as a fraudulent effort to perpetuate the myth that South Africa was vacant when the Europeans arrived. Serious concerns were voiced about the South African government’s intention to separate South African whites and blacks further by forcing the blacks to evacuate South Africa to live in “homelands,” or Bantustans, which were to be turned into “independent states.” If this homeland policy were to be carried to its logical conclusion, the black South African population would be further reduced to the level of “guest” laborers in South Africa. No other state recognized the Transkei’s independence.

The United Nations Security Council votes unanimously on an arms embargo against South Africa in 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Several other key developments took place in the months leading to the unprecedented Security Council vote on November 4, 1977. In March, the South African government introduced a bill for parliamentary consideration which, if enacted, would have required South African newspapers to protect the state’s reputation as much as possible and would have created a press council to police the papers. The proposed legislation contained no provisions for appealing press council decisions. Opponents of this bill characterized it as a blatant attempt to suppress what was left of South Africa’s freedom of speech. Also in March, Leslie O. Harriman, the Nigerian representative to the United Nations, asked the Security Council to evaluate South Africa’s compliance with General Assembly and Security Council resolutions rejecting the Transkei’s independence and the Bantustan policy in general. Harriman also announced that the African bloc had agreed to press for a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter provided for a mandatory embargo against any country that threatened international peace. In 1975, a similar measure was vetoed by Security Council permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In August, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference for Action Against Apartheid, which met in Lagos, Nigeria. Representatives of 111 governments were joined by numerous nongovernment and intergovernment organizations and individual observers. To no one’s surprise, there was unanimous condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid and Bantustan policies and the country’s interference in Zimbabwe and Namibia. Also to no one’s surprise, these condemnations carried no apparent weight in Pretoria or Cape Town.

Worldwide attention focused on South Africa once more in September and October. In September, Stephen Biko’s Biko, Stephen death while in police detention was announced, to the consternation of those who hoped a new generation of black and white South Africans was coming of age that would be able to undo the legal and cultural system established by earlier generations. After Biko’s death, many commentators despaired of finding a peaceful, moderate solution in South Africa. The pessimistic observations grew louder a month later, when the government struck out against its opponents. Close to fifty active and effective black leaders were put in preventive detention, several major black publications were closed (including The World, South Africa’s highest-circulation black newspaper), eighteen organizations were banned, and six white lay and church leaders were banned for five years. South Africa’s message appeared to be that there was no room for dialogue.

Calls for additional sanctions were immediately voiced, testing U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s stated commitment to human rights as a central feature of American foreign policy. By the end of October, it was clear that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France would not block the new resolutions condemning South Africa and proclaiming a mandatory arms embargo because of the threat to peace. On October 31, 1977, the Security Council adopted by consensus a resolution condemning the use of violence against blacks and other opponents of apartheid and calling on the government of South Africa to dismantle its discriminatory system. The U.S. government announced that it would support a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa.

The African bloc sponsored three additional resolutions, which sought to impose stringent economic sanctions on South Africa. The proposals called for a ban on foreign investments and credits, a prohibition of arms sales and the revocation of licenses for the domestic manufacture of arms, and the end of cooperation in South African nuclear development. These resolutions were vetoed by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This was the fourth time that the three Western powers had used their vetoes to defeat resolutions, each time on South Africa’s behalf. They claimed that they wanted to be able to use their political influence and economic leverage to bring about changes, and the sweeping prohibitions imposed unacceptable economic restrictions.

On November 4, 1977, the Security Council adopted by consensus the mandatory arms embargo. As U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim Waldheim, Kurt noted, the Security Council (the member states of which were Benin, Canada, China, France, India, Libya, Mauritius, Pakistan, Panama, Romania, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, and West Germany) had made history.


At the most immediate level, the impact of this momentous vote was much less than one might think, because the South African arms industry was virtually self-sufficient by 1977. An arms embargo against South Africa had actually been in effect since 1963, but South Africa had increased its military production and deployment capacity to the extent that, by 1977, its forces were overwhelmingly stronger than the combined conventional forces of its neighboring states. Prior to the 1977 embargo, Western companies, especially from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, provided weapons, technology, and licensed manufacturing capability in spite of the 1963 embargo. Several states, including France and Israel and probably Taiwan, Iran, and South Korea, ignored the 1977 embargo. South Africa was well on its way to becoming a significant regional power, and the arms embargo did not discernibly stunt that development. Indications exist that South Africa developed nuclear weapons capability. South Africa’s overwhelming military superiority has not been limited to a theoretical factor in the politics of Southern Africa; it has been put into action repeatedly. South African supplies and forces continued to play a major role in supporting an insurgency movement in Angola. Forces were deployed against antiapartheid guerrilla camps in neighboring states.

Important developments in the region since 1977 reduced the threat to peace in the region, but the connection to the mandatory arms embargo was tenuous at best. In 1978, an agreement was signed which began the process of transforming Rhodesia, a white minority-dominated neighbor of South Africa, into Zimbabwe, a one person-one vote state. In the late 1980’s, true independence for Namibia appeared possible and was achieved in 1990, the fruit of American diplomacy with the Angolans, South Africans, and U.N. assistance. Amid growing violence and increasing economic sanctions of the 1980’s, the South African government recognized the implications of a long, drawn-out struggle with the opponents of apartheid and began to move toward negotiations with black South Africans. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the discussions about the future of South Africa changed dramatically.

Some of the hard-line opponents of majority rule, particularly within the Afrikaner or Dutch segment of the white community, maintained that they would fight any government that attempted to share power with the black population. Other South Africans, reluctant to risk the destruction and losses that a race war for control of South Africa would bring, adopted a much more pragmatic approach. As time passed, the latter group appeared to be increasingly in the ascendancy.

It can be argued that the U.N. votes in October and November, 1977, hastened the rise to power of the moderates. There are several key points to make in support of this argument. The vote on the mandatory arms embargo unequivocally demonstrated that South Africa’s friends could not afford to ignore the swelling tide of public opinion against South Africa. The 1977 votes marked the first time that the United States and the United Kingdom departed from their support of rhetorical condemnations only and approved tangible, material sanctions against South Africa.

The rising tide of brutality, especially perpetuated by their own government, shocked and disturbed increasing numbers of white South Africans. Preserving apartheid threatened South Africa with moral, economic, and political destruction. In contrast, people could see the encouraging example of Zimbabwe’s peaceful transition to majority rule.

Although France, the United Kingdom, and the United States had reversed their previous vetoes on similar resolutions, it was clear during the negotiations that they wanted to approve sanctions only in the most limited form possible. They unsuccessfully sought to place a six-month limit on the embargo. Through their influence on the resolution’s phrasing and through their vetoes of other resolutions, the Western states shaped the outcome to suit their interests in a way that also allowed them to claim that they were leading the pressure on South Africa. At times, it appeared that some of the African states preferred no sanctions over the limited ban actually approved, which was primarily symbolic in its effect, and many African states continued to secretly trade with South Africa.

Despite all of the obstacles that remained, and owing to many favorable domestic and international factors, including the collapse of communism and its removal as a threat to the stability of Southern Africa, political reforms gained momentum as white South Africa came to terms with the movement of history. South Africa peacefully negotiated a process leading to black majority rule. The U.N. General Assembly by consensus terminated the sanctions against South Africa in October of 1993. This was followed by the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Thus ended the era of apartheid and white majority rule, and a new chapter of majority rule began. Apartheid;U.N. arms embargo
South Africa;U.N. arms embargo
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Further Reading

  • Beinhart, William. Twentieth-Century South Africa. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A lively history of South Africa that brings together economic, cultural, and political history.
  • Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. The United Nations and Human Rights. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1968. A sympathetic report on the theory and practice of the pursuit of human rights through U.N. auspices from 1945 to the mid-1960’s.
  • Laurence, John. The Seeds of Disaster: A Guide to the Realities, Race Policies, and World-Wide Propaganda Campaigns of the Republic of South Africa. New York: Taplinger, 1968. Dedicated to the author’s South African wife, this book presents a thorough argument on the theory and practices of South Africa in the 1960’s.
  • Leonhard, Richard. South Africa at War. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983. A meticulous account of South African military policies and their effects on relationships with neighboring and other states.
  • Robertson, A. H. Human Rights in the World. 4th ed. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997. Astonishing in its scope, this volume surveys and appraises the human rights efforts of the United Nations and various regional organizations. Provides basic concepts for those beginning to explore human rights.
  • Thompson, Leonard. The Political Mythology of Apartheid. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A description of the development of South Africa’s system of racial separation. Closely examines the arguments used to justify apartheid.
  • Woods, Donald. Biko. New York: Paddington Press, 1978. Uses the story of Stephen Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement, as a focal point for an examination of the racial issue from a sympathetic white South African perspective. In 1977, Biko was beaten to death while in police custody.

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