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The trend towards subsidiarity: a retrospective of the outgoing PSC
27 April 2018

In a retrospective of the meetings, statements and decisions of the outgoing Peace and Security Council (PSC) during its two-year term from April 2016 to March 2018, it is evident that the decrease in bold decisions on crises on the continent was influenced by the January 2016 decision not to send a protection force to Burundi. In this period the PSC did focus on a number of other conflicts, including South Sudan, Somalia, Darfur, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The outgoing PSC was elected in January 2016 in the midst of an historical moment in the African Union (AU). The 15-member PSC consisted of Egypt and Algeria (North Africa); Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo and Niger (Western Africa); Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda (Eastern Africa); Zambia, Botswana and South Africa (Southern Africa); and Chad, Burundi and the Republic of Congo (Central Africa).

A month before the new PSC was to take office, the PSC at its 565th meeting for the first time evoked article 4H of the AU Constitutive Act to decide on the deployment of a preventive mission in Burundi to halt the cycle of violence in the country. At the AU summit of January 2016, however, the PSC at the level of heads of state (including Burundi, then a member of the PSC) rejected the decision.

The PSC members started their term in a context where the authority of the ambassadors on the PSC was tarnished
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This reversal has led to many questions regarding the degree of authority devolved to the permanent representatives of the PSC in Addis Ababa. The newly elected PSC members thus started their term in April 2016 in a context where the authority of the ambassadors on the PSC was tarnished by the events that had taken place two months earlier. The most visible consequence was the progressive disappearance of Burundi from the agenda of the PSC as the East African Community took over the mediation.

Did this context affect the PSC in the next 24 months, from April 2016 to March 2018? This retrospective looks at how the outgoing PSC exerted its mandate to identify major trends and draw lessons for the members elected at the 30th AU summit in January 2018. In this regard, the period from April 2016 to March 2017 will be referred to as ‘Year One’ (Y1), and the one from April 2017 to March 2018, ‘Year 2’ (Y2).

Focus on crisis situations

From April 2016 to March 2018, 36% of the meetings held by the PSC were about ongoing crisis and conflict situations in Africa.

The other major categories (above 10%) were partnerships, mostly with the European Union and the United Nations (UN), and matters related to the architecture for peace and security in Africa (African Standby Force, Panel of the Wise, Early Warning). These categories account for 15% and 12% of PSC meetings, respectively. During this period 11% of meetings also were devoted to discussing the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).

Conflicts in Eastern Africa dominate

Conflicts in South Sudan (13%), Somalia (13%), Darfur (13%), the CAR (115) and the DRC (11%) dominated the proceedings of the PSC in this period. From Y1 to Y2, the dynamics in this regard remain quite similar, with the top five topics consisting of the aforementioned conflicts.

Eastern African crises attracted most of the PSC’s attention. From April 2016 to March 2018, these conflicts constituted an average 41% of the PSC’s meetings on crises. This was followed by crises in Central Africa (28%), where the drop in meetings on Burundi was compensated for by the increase in meetings on the political crisis in the DRC and the continuation of the crisis in the CAR.

Eastern African crises attracted most of the PSC’s attention
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Crises in West Africa constituted 22% of the PSC’s meetings on situations. (It should be noted that the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel and Guinea-Bissau have the same number of entries.) In North Africa, Libya and Western Sahara were the crises considered by the PSC (12%). The two meetings on the protracted crisis in Western Sahara both happened under the chair of South Africa, which is a prominent supporter of the Polisario Front. (Chairs of the PSC rotate monthly, usually in alphabetical order.)

A stable number of decisions

There are two kinds of decisions by the PSC: communiqués, which are binding, and press releases, which could be considered summaries of meetings. Globally the number of decisions by the PSC remained stable in Y1 (64) and Y2 (62), with a total of 126 decisions for 253 meetings. This means that half of the meetings of the PSC ended up with a decision as an outcome. Approximately one-third of meetings (28%) had a binding decision as an outcome, while 20% were summed up by a press release.

Only 34 communiqués out of 126 statements by the PSC in the two-year period contained the word ‘decides’, indicating a course of action in either political or policy terms.

In the first year of the new PSC, besides decisions on crises, there were few binding decisions on partnerships between AU organs and UN bodies (the UN Security Council and the UN Peacebuilding Commission), elections and humanitarian actors. During both years, crises still constituted the bulk of PSC ‘decisions’, with two-thirds addressing conflict situations. 

As discussed earlier, crises in Eastern Africa (Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA]) dominated the decisions of the PSC with 53% of statements made.

This could be explained, firstly, by the fact that Africa-led peace support operations are deployed in these areas, with the exception of South Sudan. Secondly, it could be said that its proximity to Addis Ababa and the presence within the PSC of several relevant stakeholders help to keep this situation high on the council’s agenda. The PSC also adopted ‘decisions’ on the crises in The Gambia, which is in the midst of a post-electoral crisis; Guinea-Bissau, where the peace process has been stalling; Western Sahara; the Sahel; and the Lake Chad Basin.

Subsidiarity as the governing principle of APSA

The main trend in the current PSC has been its failure, in most cases, to appear in the front line of crisis management on the continent.

The main trend in the current PSC has been its failure to appear in the front line of crisis management
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This could be as a consequence of the events of December 2015 to January 2016 regarding Burundi, as the PSC in this period adopted few bold decisions in response to crises. The boldest decision was taken in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2017 when the PSC threatened to institute sanctions against South Sudan.

In most cases, the PSC only provided political support to regional initiatives. These regional initiatives were not all based on the AU configuration of the eight recognised regional economic communities. An illustration of this is the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The PSC also supported the Southern African Development Community’s mission to Lesotho, which was deployed in December 2017. Besides these situations involving peace support operations, the imprint of the PSC in political crises has been limited. Apart from the DRC, the PSC barely addressed burgeoning crises. The crisis in Zimbabwe, which built up to the ousting of former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017, is one example.

The impact of the PSC is still to be reflected – or defined – in a regionally driven architecture of peace and security in Africa. As the successes of regional responses have so far been uneven, the PSC will have to sort out the structural dilemma in APSA in order to achieve political effectiveness in achieving the AU’s aim of ‘silencing the guns’ by 2020. 

Note: This article is an excerpt of an upcoming policy brief on the outgoing PSC.

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