Guterres Goes to Addis: Assessing the Secretary-General’s AU Challenge

UN Secretary-General António Guterres attends a conflict prevention and sustaining peace event. New York, January 10, 2017. (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will round out his first month in office by addressing the 28th African Union Summit now taking place in Addis Ababa. The event will see the election of a new chair and commissioners of the AU Commission, so Guterres’ speech will set the tone for the relationship between the new leadership of both organizations over the next four years.

That relationship is of great significance. In statements since his election, the secretary- general has emphasized the need for conflict prevention, “sustaining peace,” and sustainable development. Much of the UN’s work in these three interrelated fields takes place in Africa, and it is where any innovations that Guterres introduces are most likely to have an effect.

Bearing these things in mind, some broad topics that Guterres could address at the summit include:

Peace Operations Partnership

The three largest peace operations in the world are currently deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur, and Somalia. Each represents an innovation in its own right: MONUSCO in DRC has seen the first ever use of an “intervention brigade” authorized to use force against spoilers in the peace process, UNAMID in Darfur was the first hybrid AU-UN peace operation, and AMISOM in Somalia has created a unique model of an AU mission with significant logistical support from the UN.

These innovations come with their own sets of problems, including around command, control, and operational coordination; maintaining neutrality as well as the consent of host governments; providing equipment and payment to troop contributing countries; and pre-deployment training and vetting of troop contingents. This last one is of particular concern in light of the UN’s ongoing efforts to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, a task Guterres inherits from his predecessor and has declared himself equally determined to accomplish.

The AU summit is too early and too broad a platform to address these issues in any detail, but the secretary-general is likely to indicate that they will be an integral part of his agenda in implementing the recommendations of the three high-level peace operations reviews from 2015, and to invite the new leadership of the AU—particularly the Peace and Security Commission—to cooperate with him to bring about desired reforms.

Displacement and Migration

The UN General Assembly is preparing to adopt a global compact on “safe, orderly, and regular migration” in 2018, with negotiations on a pre-final draft already underway. Media attention tends to focus on conflict-related migration and displacement, and much of the recent coverage has centered on the experiences of Syrian refugees, particularly those entering or on the borders of Europe. Yet, as the secretary-general has noted, there is much work to be done in places where television cameras are absent.

In fact, the proportion of South-South migration has been growing: The OECD estimates that 82 million of the world’s almost 250 million migrants are from (and remain) in the global South. The largest numbers of displaced persons remain within country borders, i.e. as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Africa’s trans-Sahel migration route is among the oldest in the world and remains actively in use despite the attendant dangers of violence, exposure, and famine. These trends are further likely to be intensified by climate change—and yet, concerns over radicalization and political instability are prompting Kenya to consider closing down the world’s largest refugee camp.

Guterres is exceptionally familiar with this subject: As High Commissioner for Refugees, he addressed the AU when it adopted a convention on IDPs in 2009, and has drawn attention to the conditions of Libyan refugees in Tunisia, Congolese refugees in Uganda, and most recently of IDPs in South Sudan. The Addis Ababa summit provides an ideal opportunity for him to remind the AU of its commitments to assist and protect refugees, IDPs, and migrants.

Peaceful Transfer of Power

Developments in The Gambia, where a tense stand-off over election results was only recently resolved after intervention from the Economic Community of West African States, have brought the issue of political transitions into sharp focus. The AU played an active role as mediator, while simultaneously warning that The Gambia’s membership in the AU would be suspended if President Yahya Jammeh attempted to remain in office despite losing the election.

The Gambia is only the latest instance of troubled transition in Africa. The UN Security Council continues to monitor the situation in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to remain for a third term has sparked unrest; the European Union and US have imposed sanctions against Burundi, and the UN is still struggling to negotiate a deal to directly pay Burundian troops serving in AMISOM (preventing Nkurunziza’s government from accessing that money). Another crisis is brewing in DRC, where President Kabila continues to delay the conduct of elections, even as patience with his glissement strategy is rapidly waning.

If Kabila does indeed attempt to amend the constitution to permit himself a third term, he will be following in the footsteps of not only Nkurunziza but also Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (Zimbabwe reversed this trend by limiting the president to two five-year terms in 2013, but the limit does not apply retroactively; President Mugabe would be 100 years old when the second of those terms expired). At issue is the interpretation of the AU Charter’s Article 4(p), which condemns “unconstitutional changes of government.” This is language that encompasses coups or defiant election losers but cannot, on its face, apply to constitutional amendments to extend the term of an incumbent head of state.

To be sure, Secretary-General Guterres would face pushback if he openly criticized the strategy of relaxing term limits to an audience that includes many of its most enthusiastic practitioners. He might approach the topic obliquely, however, by subsuming it within a broader theme: the shared aspiration for a rules-based international order, which is the animating spirit of both the UN and AU charters. In advocating for his agenda of sustainable peace, Guterres may wish to emphasize the importance of the rule of law, given the damage that impunity does to trust in government, and of inclusive political systems, which provide avenues for the realization of legitimate political aspirations.

Ameya Naik works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. @kianayema