South Africa won the non-permanent seat on the 15-member Council in an uncontested vote last week, giving the country a new two-year term starting in January.
The country’s last stint on the UN decision-making body drew sharp criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch which said South Africa had "sided with reactionary rather than progressive forces".
Under President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa shielded Zimbabwe from international sanctions over electoral violence in 2008, sought to deflect action against Myanmar over the deadly repression of Buddhist monks in 2007, and tempered criticism of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mbeki, who championed an "African Renaissance", frequently criticised Western domination in world affairs and wanted to give countries the chance to resolve their problems internally.
A similar argument was made by the apartheid government when it tried to stop global sanctions on the whites-only regime, which didn’t stop the world from taking action.
Sixteen years later, human rights activists hope that the African National Congress, which led the liberation movement and has governed since the first all-race elections in 1994, will take heed of its past.
"We urge South Africa — as a leading democracy with a vital role to play in world affairs — to ensure that this time, whenever vital human rights issues are at stake at the UN, it will vote like a democracy," said Hillel Neuer, head of the group UN Watch, which monitors the global body.
Since taking office in May 2009, President Jacob Zuma’s government has indicated that it could follow a different course.
"We cannot afford to betray the confidence of the UN member states and the international community at large in our ability to contribute and further advance the cause of international peace and security and international law," foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said after returning from New York last week.
Without mentioning Mbeki, she promised: "We will not trade our constitutional values and the rich tradition of struggle against injustice for political point-scoring."
South Africa has made concrete signs of a shift since the ANC sacked Mbeki as president. In November 2009, the country supported a General Assembly resolution against Myanmar, noted Yolanda Spies, a University of Pretoria researcher.
"The incoming Zuma administration quickly moved to signal a new ethical course," she said in a recent article.
"However, the new administration’s foreign policy also yielded its share of contradiction and contention," she said, noting Pretoria’s often ambiguous stance on the war crimes warrant against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.
But she said so far Zuma’s style has been more "inclusive and consultative", compared to Mbeki’s elitist approach to politics.
"The tone is increasingly pragmatic," she said, a point recently made by deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim.
"We must always have in mind the pursuit of our national interests in our foreign policy," he said.
South Africa’s view of its national interests doesn’t always sit easily with rights activists. In August, Zuma made a high-profile trip to China, now South Africa’s biggest export market.