Beyond politics: options for an AU-UN partnership that delivers

Despite Security Council hurdles, there are practical ways for the AU and UN to build peace, together.

The human security benefits of collaboration between the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) are clear. With the formidable resources and political clout of each organisation, joint strategies can help resolve crises in regions of Africa embroiled in conflict – from the Sahel and Libya, to the Central African Republic (CAR), and the restive Great Lakes Region.

Now more than ever, the AU and UN need to come together, not only at the level of political rhetoric, but on the ground where the results matter. Africa is facing persistent security threats, some of which are linked to global problems like violent extremism and transnational organised crime. In many cases, national and multilateral responses have proved largely ineffectual. 

But effective collaboration between the UN and AU has not always come easily. Of late, member states are increasingly divided on key elements of the partnership, particularly the issue of financing. In December 2018, an African-drafted resolution on funding AU-led peace support operations was blocked in the UN Security Council, largely due to US reservations.

UN and AU technocrats can keep the partnership going, despite political wrangling over financing

Resolving this contentious issue at the level of member states will be difficult. But this should not slow down efforts to bring the UN and AU closer together. There are several ways that the two bodies are already collaborating, and strengthening these practical mechanisms should therefore be a priority.  

Over the past three years, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his counterpart at the AU Commission, Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, have personally worked hard to improve collaboration between their organisations. The results are evident in two agreements on joint peace and security efforts, and implementing the long-term policies of Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Several coordinating mechanisms have also been set up, ranging from joint task forces to regular spaces for interaction between senior leaders and officials at desk level. On 6 May, the joint Third Annual Conference between UN and AU leaders was held in New York. These are all useful ways for the technocrats in the UN Secretariat and AU Commission to keep the positive momentum of the partnership going, despite the political wrangling over financing.

The value of these practical linkages shouldn’t be underestimated. Amidst the December 2018 setback, the two organisations discreetly negotiated and endorsed a detailed discussion outlining ways to harmonise UN-AU operations in peacekeeping. The declaration was described by one Security Council diplomat as a remarkable achievement that epitomised how the Secretariat and Commission support one another. It enables the UN Secretary-General and AU Commission Chairperson to report back to their member states with workable options and approaches.  

Several successful partnerships cut across the political and security interests of the UN and AU

Collaboration on the AU’s ‘Silencing the Guns’ initiative is another example of a successful partnership that cuts across the political and security interests of both organisations. A UN Security Council resolution adopting this initiative – led by the three African states on the council in close consultation with the AU’s Peace and Security Council – was passed in February.

Lessons from UN-AU engagements in CAR, Libya and the Sahel provide further practical ways to strengthen the partnership. In shepherding CAR’s peace agreement, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smaїl Chergui worked closely with UN Under Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre LaCroix, and the Economic Community for Central African States. Multiple joint visits were made to CAR during 2018-9 and through the February 2019 peace negotiations in Khartoum, Sudan.

This process highlights how the two organisations can complement one another in specific country situations. The AU can provide political legitimacy to lead engagements with conflicting parties and neighboring countries through intense negotiations, while the UN can play a more supportive role. Both the UN and the AU recognise the importance of the implementation phase of the peace agreement, and deciding how to share the resource burden is a key next step.

In Libya and the Sahel, joint AU-UN responses have been less successful

On the current crisis in Libya, shared AU-UN responses have been less successful. Despite the March joint visit by UN and AU officials, the subsequent high-level meeting of the Libya Quartet, and other regular engagements on Libya, neither body has managed to implement an integrated political approach to the country. Disagreements have been rooted in the diplomatic fallout of NATO’s 2011 military intervention, but both organisations openly acknowledge the need for a single roadmap on Libya.

Dealing with the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Sahel has also been a challenge. The AU and UN have contributed to the proliferation of strategies on the Sahel, and both have authorised deployments in the region. Some diplomats have estimated that close to 18 bilateral and multilateral strategies exist. With the alarming rise in violence across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, improved coordination between the AU and UN is an essential starting point to stabilise the region.

There are still missing ingredients in the UN-AU partnership, particularly the need to align member states’ strategies with those agreed on by the UN Secretariat and AU Commission. The UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council also need to be on the same page. To change dynamics on the ground, the momentum of AU-UN partnerships must be kept, even when member states’ political decisions make this difficult. 

Daniel Forti, Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute, Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, ISS and Priyal Singh, Researcher, ISS

This article is part of a series on the UN-AU partnership in peace and security, for a joint project between the International Peace Institute (IPI) and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). This article is based on a joint publication on IPI’s Global Observatory.

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Picture: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

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