African members stand together at the UN

At the end of September, African Union (AU) member states will be present en masse in New York for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly debates and for a ministerial meeting of the Peace and Security Council (PSC). Meanwhile, preparations are being made for the annual meeting between the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the PSC on 23–24 October 2019.

These meetings are a high point in the institutionalised relations between the UN and the AU. However, their relationship has not always been a smooth ride and has evolved significantly over time. Experts agree that African countries serving as non-permanent members on the UNSC can play an important role in bridging the gap between the AU and the UN.

African countries serving on the UNSC can play an important role in bridging the gap between the AU and the UN

The A3 as bridge between the AU and the UN

The three African non-permanent members of the UNSC, the so-called A3, are elected for a two-year term upon endorsement by the AU Assembly. Usually they represent three of the five regions of the continent, according to the principle of regional rotation in the AU.

Yet the A3 do not serve on the UNSC on behalf of the AU or the PSC, but as individual members. Thus they are not legally bound to support PSC positions – one of the tricky issues that often stand in the way of greater synergy.

Divisions exist, including over decisions on African crises, which make up the bulk of the UNSC’s work. The A3 often have very different foreign policy priorities and strategic partnerships with powerful countries outside the continent. Sometimes they are accused of preferring to align with former colonial powers rather than sticking to the AU position.

In the last few years the A3 have differed strongly over the issue of Western Sahara, with mainly francophone states supporting resolutions put forward by France and countries such as South Africa abstaining. This was the case in discussions around the renewal of the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) earlier this year. South Africa abstained, while Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea, the two other members currently on the council, voted in favour.

The renewal of MINURSO will again be discussed next month, when South Africa chairs the UNSC.

The AU Commission has therefore made an effort to increase the number of meetings between the A3 and the PSC to align positions on important crises discussed in New York.

The AU Commission has made an effort to increase the number of meetings between the A3 and the PSC

According to officials, this is paying off. The UNSC’s strong support for the AU’s initiative to Silence the Guns is an example of the impact of this alignment between the A3 and the PSC.

Joint statement on Sudan a turning point

The 6 June 2019 joint statement by the A3 on the imposition of sanctions on Sudan, following the coup d’état that removed former president Omar al-Bashir in April, is seen as one of the most important indications of greater synergy between the A3 to date. Permanent UNSC members China and Russia were against the suspension, but the A3 stood firm, perfectly aligned with the position taken by the PSC back in Addis Ababa on the same day.

Permanent members China and Russia were against the suspension of Sudan, but the A3 stood firm

Later in the same month, the A3 also joined forces in the decision on the extension of the mandate of the AU–UN hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID). Given the uncertain political situation in Sudan, it was decided to put the planned drawdown of UNAMID on hold for four months.

One of the contributing factors to this increasing alignment of AU and A3 positions is the growing realisation that the continent has to stand united in order to have an impact. On a practical level, the AU Office to the UN’s more active role has also created greater synergy. The office is charged with acting as a liaison between the AU and the UN, beyond just the UNSC, but its impact on the A3 as a bridge between the two institutions has been notable.

Financing of AU peace missions the elephant in the room

Apart from ad hoc issues such as the suspension of Sudan, the financing of AU peacekeeping through UN assessed contributions remains an issue that A3 countries have tried to raise jointly in the UNSC. Despite commitments from the past several UN secretary generals at the AU Assembly summits in Addis Ababa that the UN would ensure sustainable funding for AU peace operations, this has not happened.  In the last number of years, the Trump administration in the United States has been particularly hostile against such funding by the UN.

At the end of 2018, A3 members again made a notable effort to table a resolution on this issue, but it was scuppered mid-way in the process and never reached the agenda of the council. One of the reasons for the failure was disunity among the A3 members on the strategy to follow regarding the proposed resolution. South Africa is expected to table this again during its presidency in October.

Obstacles hampering the work of the A3

African members serving on the UNSC take up the two-year position in vastly different circumstances. Some embassies in New York have a lot of capacity and sophisticated diplomatic links, while others are stretched to the limit. In the first six months of 2019 there were 196 meetings for officials in New York to attend – not an easy task for small embassies.

African members serving on the UNSC take up the two-year position in vastly different circumstances

This poses certain practical problems when it comes to decision-making on global issues that might not necessarily be on the radar of African states. They also do not have an institutional memory of how voting patterns or discussions were conducted in the past.

In this regard, the spectre of Resolution 1973 that authorised a no-fly zone and the subsequent military intervention in Libya in 2011 looms large. Diplomats from some African member states have since complained that the three permanent members that are part of NATO ‘cajoled’ them into hastily approving the resolution, which ultimately led to the removal of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The AU’s plan for a negotiated roadmap for Libya at the time was completely ignored.

In the years that followed, some member states refused to support, for example, interventions in Syria, having burnt their fingers in the Libyan case.

To rectify the lack of capacity, African member states can draw on the support of civil society, academics and think tanks to bolster their knowledge and decision-making on key issues. This has been the case during the current membership by South Africa, which has seen a large number of engagements between officials of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and civil society.

The need for greater synergy

Clearly, on many of the issues before the council the A3 is considered a very influential bloc. If they can speak with one voice when it comes to crucial and contentious issues, this would benefit the continent at large.

When member states serve on both the UNSC and the PSC, as is the case currently with Equatorial Guinea, this can be an advantage for the flow of information between the two councils.

In 2020 South Africa will be chairing the AU while also serving on the UNSC

Equally, in 2020 South Africa will be chairing the AU while also serving on the UNSC. Key priorities for South Africa, such as the promotion of political dialogue to solve crises – rather than sanctions or military interventions – peacebuilding, Women, Peace and Security and the implementation of Agenda 2063 are expected to be high on the agenda for the country in both councils.

In 2020 South Africa will be joined by Niger and Tunisia on the UNSC. In a global context where multilateralism is increasingly under threat, the role of the A3 and the cooperation between them will be crucial.

Picture: UN Multimedia

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