Building a better UN-AU peacekeeping partnership


‘I have addressed this council several times over the past year on peacekeeping reform. It is now time to take action together,’ said United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres on 28 March. The statement launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, part of a new attempt aimed at mobilising political action around the UN peacekeeping reform process.

A4P, in the words of Guterres, is structured around overcoming the inadequate performance of peace operations through the four ‘Ps’ described in the 2015 High-Level Panel on Peace Operations – people, politics, partnerships and performance.

The increased focus on partnerships highlights the need for a closer look at one of the UN’s most important partners when it comes to peacekeeping – the African Union (AU). Since its creation in 2002, the AU has shown some of its comparative advantages in responding to the need for peacekeepers.

The increasing demand for organisations to step in can be seen by the wide range of peace operations mandated by the AU, including Burundi (2003-2004), Sudan (2004-2007), Somalia (2007 to date) and Mali (2013). In recent years, the AU has also authorised a range of more offensive types of operations led by countries in a specific region, often referred to as ad hoc security initiatives. These include the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram (MNJTF) and the G5 Sahel Force.

Part of the problem with the UN-AU relationship is that their issues are not simply political, but bureaucratic

At a strategic level, the UN Security Council (UNSC) and AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) have increased their interaction, including through hosting joint bi-annual meetings. Operationally, the partnership is active at several levels, from joint mission specific planning to desk-to-desk meetings. One example is the UN-AU Joint Task Force on Peace and Security aimed at reviewing the status of the engagement between the two organisations, represented by senior officials from both the UN Secretariat and the AU Commission.

The Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhancing Partnership on Peace and Security, launched in April 2017, is often seen as a culmination of efforts to boost coordination between the two organisations strategically and operationally. One year on, however, there is still much to be done in ensuring a greater degree of coherence and coordination between them.

Renowned peacekeeping academics Paul Williams and Arthur Boutellis accurately describe UN-AU relations as being ‘at times… characterised by considerable conflict, mistrust, and tension, often hindering the predictability and conduct of effective peace operations’. Examples include when in 2017 the UNSC refused to approve G5 Sahel Force funding, or current challenges in ensuring continued support to the African Mission in Somalia.

So what can be done to enhance the UN-AU partnership? At a strategic level, there are many opportunities for the AU PSC and the UNSC to engage beyond their bi-annual meetings, which are often criticised for their limited implementation and insufficient follow-up of communiqués.

The AU and UN must clarify their roles and responsibilities in the deployment of ad hoc security initiatives

More regular meetings between them could help further develop political processes and coordination of day-to-day decisions. While achieving common visions between the two will remain a challenge, more constant interaction between them could help increase mutual understanding of opportunities and constraints for coordination. 

In order to achieve such a shift, the role of the three African members (A3) in the UNSC is critical. In 2018, the A3 comprises Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia, and in 2019, Ethiopia will be replaced by South Africa.

By championing AU voices in the UNSC, the A3 have a key responsibility to further ensure that AU practices and discussions can support cooperation between the two institutions. Addressing divisions among A3 members and limited coordination between positions taken in Addis Ababa and New York is critical.

Both organisations must further clarify their roles and responsibilities in the deployment of ad hoc security initiatives. The G5 Sahel, for instance, was politically supported and authorised by both the UNSC and the AU PSC, but neither organisation controls (or funds) the deployment of the operation. This is done directly by its troop contributors and other external partners.

In current and future ad hoc deployments, both organisations should develop the appropriate policy guidelines, including issues related to funding, command and control, and doctrine, that can further clarify their respective roles and responsibilities, and their level of engagement and mutual support.

Part of the problem with their relationship is that their issues are not simply political, but bureaucratic. States are ultimately responsible for the political direction and accountability of international organisations like the UN and the AU, but its bureaucrats still enjoy substantial design leeway due to the need for bureaucratic expertise.

There are many opportunities for the AU PSC and the UNSC to engage beyond their bi-annual meetings

One way to increase bureaucratic coordination between the UN and AU is through more frequent and structured joint planning, analysis and desk-to-desk interaction. However there is still a capacity gap between the two. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations has for example around 500 staff members based in New York, while its AU counterpart, the Peace Support Operations Division, has only a few dozen staff in Addis Ababa. Therefore expectations of what either party can contribute must be realistic.

Both organisations have liaison offices to the other. However competition and duplication between the UN and AU must be minimised, through improved understanding of the dynamics, limitations and challenges of each organisation.

Many external partners have seconded staff to the AU Commission as a means to increase its capacity. The UN could consider seconding a larger number of personnel to be imbedded within the AU Commission. This would not only provide increased capacity to the AU, but could improve the UN’s own understanding of how the AU Commission operates internally.

The AU, for its part, must strengthen its presence in New York. During fieldwork in New York in April 2018, many stakeholders were frustrated with the overall capacity of the AU’s office there to influence policy processes. This limited role was attributed to the small size of the office as well as limited clarity regarding its role, reporting lines and decision-making processes. 

According to one AU official, the partnership should be based on mutual trust and support. The official told the Institute for Security Studies that there was still a sense of competition between the two institutions in their engagements.

The UN and AU have stepped up their attempts to strengthen the effectiveness of their partnership. But a clearer division of labour, mutual trust and burden-sharing arrangements must be agreed on. Only then can the A4P accomplish its true goal of enhancing partnerships between the UN and regional organisations.  

This article is a version of a previously published piece at the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Building Programme, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: UN Photo/Olivier Chassot

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