Divisions over peace operations could be the UN–AU partnership’s undoing

Once a mainstay of good relations, these differences will test the limits of cooperation between the two multilateral bodies.

The United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) are quickly reaching a crossroads on how to collectively support multilateral peace operations. The issue is coming to a head because of rising levels of political violence across Africa, fragile peace agreements, a precarious macroeconomic environment, and a growing reliance on counter-terrorism efforts. Unless rectified, these differences could jeopardise the mainstay of the UN–AU partnership since 2002 and undo years of steady progress.

Cooperation between the UN and AU is a pillar of Africa’s peace and security landscape. Despite notable growth in many areas of their partnership, divides on how they should respond to the continent’s security have deepened.

Strategic alignment between the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) is essential. Both spearhead collective responses to security problems, but the two councils have a difficult relationship, and many areas are contested. In particular, there are mutual misperceptions regarding their respective roles and responsibilities.

In recent months, the difficulties in mustering unified responses to the situations in Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia and Mozambique stand out. Neither the UN nor AU have mandated operational responses that can match their relatively limited pronouncements on these conflicts.

The African Union PSC and UNSC have a difficult relationship and many areas are contested

The lack of unity and common strategic direction has also spilt over into situations where multilateral peace operations are deployed. Growing UN and AU differences on political approaches to the Central African Republic, Mali and the Sahel, and Somalia are examples.

Political divides are seeping into other aspects of their peace operations partnership, with the deadlock on sustainable and predictable financing an obvious sore point. The political fallout from the failed 2018 and 2019 negotiations over a UNSC resolution is still felt today. Even though diplomats in New York tread carefully when raising the subject, these sensitivities spilt into the open during recent Security Council discussions on the AU Mission in Somalia and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Efforts to resolve these issues could emerge over the coming months. The AU PSC recently asked the AU Commission to ‘develop a common African position paper’ on the subject. Some of the technical foundations on which any agreement would need to be built have already been laid.

The financing debate is perhaps the most publicised source of tension. A new sense of urgency can be linked to the slow but steady capitalisation of the AU Peace Fund (now estimated at approximately US$204 million) combined with the implications of the new European Peace Facility.

Growing UN and AU divides are evident with regard to responses in CAR, Mali and the Sahel, and Somalia

Other fracture lines are also pushing the boundaries of current multilateral peace operations. For instance, the shift towards regional ad hoc counter-terrorism initiatives is significant, as it directly impacts the UN–AU partnership.

Ad hoc coalitions such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Lake Chad Basin Multinational Joint Task Force require both UNSC mandates and AU PSC authorisation. But they are not implemented by the UN or the AU and therefore aren’t subject to these bodies’ human rights, financial or operational requirements. While they fill gaps that UN peace operations don’t address, these ad hoc initiatives often lack broader strategies to deal with underlying political drivers of violence.

As seen across the Sahel, the result is a patchwork of multilateral responses shaped by sub-regional and external actors and interests, which are not always coherent or complementary. Ad hoc initiatives fall outside the AU’s African Peace and Security Architecture framework, which is rooted in the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity between the AU and Africa’s regional economic communities.

How ad hoc security initiatives fit into this landscape is problematic. Host countries, neighbouring states and powerful allies are increasingly drawn to the option of shopping around between different operations. Short-term security priorities are often favoured over broader commitments to improving governance, human rights and socio-economic equality.

The shift towards regional ad hoc counter-terrorism initiatives directly impacts the UN–AU partnership

There’s also the risk of further blurring the distinctions between multilateral peace operations and counter-terrorism initiatives, especially in the eyes of the people they are meant to serve.

How the UN and AU navigate these divides will impact the partnership’s evolution, but the challenges aren’t unique or insurmountable. The past four years have seen the growing institutionalisation of the UN–AU partnership. In 2017 the Joint UN–AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security was finalised, and the UN Secretary-General and AU Commissioner have made joint efforts to boost relations.

To navigate the conflicts over peace operations, the continued leadership from the AU Commission and UN heads will be crucial. Member states will need to back this up by renewing their commitment to work in partnership and find common ground on complex political and security issues.

The UN–AU partnership cannot afford to relapse as Africa faces growing security and socio-economic challenges. Practical cooperation on peace operations will not only sustain the relationship but future-proof it for a new era of multilateralism.

Daniel Forti, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute and Priyal Singh, Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

This article is published as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP), funded by the government of Norway. It is part of a series on the UN–AU partnership for a joint project between the Institute for Security Studies and the International Peace Institute. A version of this article will be published on IPI’s Global Observatory.

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Photo: UNPeacekeeping Twitter

Related content