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Is the PSC Protocol still up to date?
22 June 2018

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) was briefed by the Head of the Reform Implementation Unit of the African Union (AU) in May 2018 about the options to reform the body and increase its effectiveness. This could include strengthening its working methods and its role in managing crises. However, the AU should also consider updating the PSC Protocol.

What explains the silence of the PSC  amid the unravelling of the Arusha Agreement in Burundi, and its limited effectiveness in stemming the conflict in South Sudan? Is the PSC hampered by its working methods and its limited capacity? Or is the protocol establishing the PSC no longer adequate to respond to contemporary security challenges?

Is the protocol establishing the PSC no longer adequate to respond to contemporary security challenges?
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The original report on AU reforms proposed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame hinted at this. It initially proposed a radical reform of the PSC, consisting of:

  • Revising the composition of the PSC (article 5[4])
  • Strengthening its working methods
  • Strengthening its role in preventing and managing crises

Heads of state at the AU summit, however, watered this down to ‘the PSC should be reformed to ensure that it meets the ambition foreseen in its Protocol by strengthening its working methods and its role in conflict prevention’.

The reference to article 5(4) of the PSC Protocol on the criteria for becoming a member of the PSC was shelved in the process.

The protocol establishing the PSC was negotiated and adopted more than 15 years ago. As the Architecture for Peace and Security in Africa (APSA) has now entered a phase dominated by regional economic communities (RECs) and new security challenges, the question is whether the protocol and the working methods of the PSC are up to date.

The protocol establishing the PSC was negotiated and adopted more than 15 years ago
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There are two ways of looking at the issue. Either the protocol is adequate and the fault lies with its implementation, or there are weaknesses in the protocol that need to be corrected or updated.  

Progressive framework hampered by uneven implementation

Some say that the protocol is progressive enough in terms of both its mechanisms and its policies. Among the progressive aspects of the protocol are its human security orientation, illustrated by the article authorising the deployment of a force in the case of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity; and its emphasis on the promotion of democratic practices, rule of law, good governance, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and respect for the sanctity of human life, as both goals and principles.

The powers vested in the chairperson of the AU Commission (AUC) to coordinate with the PSC and the establishment of the Panel of the Wise – a relatively independent body, which allows for early warning and preventative diplomacy – are also seen as progressive aspects of the protocol. In contrast, in the Organization for African Unity (OAU) era heads of state exerted firm control over any initiative related to peace and security.

The powers vested in the chairperson of the AU Commission are seen as progressive aspects of the protocol
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It could thus be argued that the limitations encountered by the APSA have to do with flawed implementation by member states and the AUC, rather than flaws in the PSC Protocol.

One of these flaws in implementation relate to inadequate staffing at embassies in Addis Ababa. The initial version of the Kagame report sought to address this by setting PSC membership criteria linked to a country’s capacity to carry out its mandate on the council.

Another flaw is the lack of adequate funding, which limits the ability of the Peace and Security Department to launch initiatives. Finally, the lack of political will – especially in the post-Libya context in which many heads of state view the responsibility to protect as a disguised instrument to overthrow governments that are not favourable to the West – also causes implementation issues.

The protocol as a child of the 90s

On the other hand, the protocol cannot be separated from the context in which it was drafted; an era marked by the genocide in Rwanda and the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. This has resulted in the inclusion of human security-oriented provisions first in the AU Constitutive Act and then in the protocol establishing the PSC.

Most of these provisions on human security were in fact included in the Kampala Declaration in 1991, which was not adopted because of the opposition of some authoritarian states.  Almost 10 years later, under the leadership of former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, these provisions were used to overhaul the continental framework on peace and security. In this regard, the protocol is the product of the 1990s.

Under the leadership of former presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo, these provisions were used to overhaul the continental framework on peace and security
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Yet the security landscape in Africa has changed over the last few years. Large-scale conflicts such as the current civil war in South Sudan are the exception rather than the norm. Most crises are low intensity and strongly related to governance issues, with peaks of violence and periods of calm. In addition, while insurgencies can threaten a state’s authority in remote areas, their structures are too loose to allow them to take full control of a territory.

The protocol’s emphasis on preventative action and early warning resulted from the assumption that the genocide in Rwanda, among others, was caused by a lack of continental monitoring and knowledge of the situation to inform appropriate decisions, notably the deployment of military missions. In consequence, the protocol has provided the framework for African military missions in Burundi, Darfur, Somalia and Mali. However, the AU’s ability to deploy military missions contrasts with its often-limited ability to foster political solutions.

The roles of the AUC chairperson and the Panel of the Wise are also limited, as the protocol attempts to balance human security and state sovereignty. It is thus becoming increasingly difficult to identify options to pre-empt crises, or even to limit the humanitarian consequences of full-blown crises.

Reality has set in

As most pillars of the APSA have become operationalised, reality has set in. The functioning of various mechanisms on paper has morphed under pressure from political realities and changes in the ideological mindset of several member states.

One of the best examples is article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act and article 4(j) of the PSC Protocol. The crisis in Burundi has illustrated the challenges in implementing these critical provisions, ranging from obtaining the consent of the concerned state to finding unanimity among AU heads of state (as the AU favours consensus) and an authorising resolution by a divided United Nations (UN) Security Council (in a case of a lack of consent). The same crisis has affected other pillars of the APSA, such as the Conflict Early Warning System and the Panel of the Wise.

The relative independence of the Panel of the Wise is constrained both by administrative and financial challenges
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The relative independence of the Panel of the Wise – set out in the protocol – is constrained both by administrative and financial challenges and by the fact that being an elder statesman (or woman) is not necessary the recipe for bold and unconventional thinking when it comes to solving crises on the continent. Another example is the relationship between the AU and the RECs. While the protocol empowers the AU to coordinate and harmonise the activities of regional organisations, member states increasingly favour RECs to manage crises.

Options for reform

Based on the above assessment, various reforms of the PSC Protocol may be considered: updating the protocol, filling some of the gaps and clarifying issues.

Firstly, it is necessary to update the protocol to include the latest institutional and policy developments in the AU. The main development is the establishment of the African Charter for Democracy, Election and Governance and the African Governance Architecture, as the PSC only refers to the Lomé Declaration on unconstitutional changes of government. Other developments that could be included are the rules on the functioning of the Peace Fund; the 2004 Protocol to the OAU Convention on Preventing and Combating Terrorism; and the AU framework on humanitarian policy.

It is necessary to update the protocol to include the latest institutional and policy developments in the AU
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Secondly, some gaps in the protocol may need to be filled. A few examples that could be looked at are: 

  • Article 10(4) of the protocol, which states that the AUC chairperson should be assisted by the commissioner for peace and security. This should be changed to ‘assisted by the commissioners; especially those in charge of peace and security and political affairs’.
  • The provision for subsidiary bodies and subcommittees of the PSC, addressed in article 8(5). To this day, only the committee of experts has seen an advanced degree of operationalisation. Other bodies such as the Military Staff Committee and the subcommittees on counter-terrorism, post-conflict and development, and sanctions have not. This provision needs to be revised.
  • The status of the PSC Secretariat, which is not elaborated at all. Over the years the secretariat has increasingly relied on the commission to fulfil its mandate, mostly owing to its lack of capacity. Consideration should be given to a clear definition of the secretariat’s terms of reference, to include controlling the legality and monitoring the implementation of decisions adopted by the PSC.

Thirdly, clarification is needed regarding the African Standby Force, which the protocol sees as the main military instrument of the APSA. However, a regional brigade has never been deployed. African peace support operations now vary in both format and mandate, especially with the loose regionalisation of missions such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and the G5 Sahel. It may be necessary to rather adopt a doctrine for African-led peace support operations than focusing on a specific format, in order to allow flexibility.

African peace support operations now vary in both format and mandate, especially with the loose regionalisation of missions
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Obstacles to successful reform

The PSC and its protocol may still face many challenges.

The first is the controversial issue of delegations’ capacity, as pointed out in the Kagame report. Thus far, the criteria set out in article 5(2) have not been enforced, for the sake of sovereign equality among member states. Even member states that complain about the limited capacity of other embassies are reluctant to establish any coercive mechanisms in this regard.

Secondly, any reform of the protocol could end up disrupting the fragile balance it achieves between human security and state sovereignty. In 2010, Ghanaian scholar Thomas Kwasi Tieku asked: ‘Does human security have a future within the AU when Obasanjo and Mbeki leave office?’ This question remains relevant. Few heads of state are willing to openly defend shared values at the continental level.

Any reform of the protocol could end up disrupting the fragile balance it achieves between human security and state sovereignty
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The ideological mindset of the early 2000s has changed and issues such as the responsibility to protect and human security now tend to be rejected as ‘Western tools’. For example, progressive West African heads of state tend to limit such advocacy and implementation to their regional frameworks while remaining relatively silent in Addis Ababa.

The AU’s practice of consensus, the silence of some human security-oriented heads of state, plus the vocal dominance of conservative and authoritarian heads of state mean that any amendment of the protocol could see a reversal on this score, rather than an improvement.

A crisis of effectiveness and adequacy

In conclusion, while representing substantial progress when compared to the OAU, the protocol and the PSC face a double challenge.

The implementation of both the spirit and the letter of the protocol is flawed, owing to multiple factors: uneven political will, lack of adequate resources – both financial and human – and bureaucratisation that has resulted in stagnation.

At the same time, the context has changed significantly since the protocol’s entry into force in 2004. Some security challenges (terrorism, climate change-induced conflicts, governance-related crises) have gained intensity. The adaptation of various instruments is thus necessary.

Both the implementation and contextual crises are urgent, but it is up to AU member states to decide which one matters most and requires a timely resolution.