Can the AU and UN Work Together to Reform African Peace Operations?

African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat (left) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (right) sign the "Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhancing Partnership on Peace and Security." New York, April 19, 2017 (Albin Lohr-Jones/Associated Press)

The past year has been an eventful one for reform at the United Nations and African Union. Both are undertaking several different processes under their new leaderships, aiming at making the organizations better tailored to the challenges of contemporary conflict.

On September 20, the UN Security Council will debate implementation of the recommendations from the 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report at a head of state level. The HIPPO report made over 160 recommendations on how to ensure better design and delivery of UN peace operations, focusing particularly on how to make peacekeeping more responsive and fit-for-purpose.

In addition to the proposed reform initiatives, the September 20 debate will be yet another opportunity for the Security Council to discuss the AU-UN partnership. Creating a stronger relationship is one of the key recommendations of HIPPO, under the broader heading of “global-regional peace and security partnership.” It is also a goal of both Guterres and AU Chairperson Moussa Faki, as well as the current holder of the Security Council presidency, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is one of the three current African members of the Council and its presidency provides an opportunity to bridge processes that are happening at the AU and UN, as well as jointly advance the reforms of UN peacekeeping underway.

One important role of the Security Council meeting will be to provide member states the opportunity to discuss how peace operations mandates are developed by the Council, as well as how the process can become more strategic and inclusive. From the perspective of Ethiopia—currently the top UN troop-contributing country, as well as a key member state of the AU—these discussions of reform are far more than a rhetorical exercise.

Security Council Resolution 2320 of November 18, 2016, which largely built on the HIPPO report, stressed that the AU-UN partnership should be underpinned by mutual consultations between the Council and the AU’s Peace and Security Council. The resolution highlighted that such cooperation should be “based on respective comparative advantage, burden sharing, consultative decision making, joint analysis and planning missions and assessment visits by the UN and AU, monitoring and evaluation, transparency and accountability.”

The September 20 debate could provide more prominence to some of the AU’s concerns in this respect. While the organization remains concerned about the long process of making the African Standby Force operational, it is also becoming clear that the challenging security situation on the continent demands new approaches beyond this peacekeeping contingent and traditional UN-mandated based peace operations. The AU has utilized several ad hoc security initiatives in its attempts to adapt and respond to the challenges. These include the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which covers areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda; and the Multi-National Joint Task Force, which is mandated to bring an end to Boko Haram and comprises a force from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and now Benin.

The resent approval of the G5 Sahel Joint Force—consisting of troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and mandated to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking in the Sahel region—highlighted, once again, some of the divisions in the Security Council around the use of new sub-regional approaches. The adoption of Resolution 2359, welcoming the force, followed a difficult negotiation over whether the Council should consider using UN assessed contributions to support its budget. Ultimately, the resolution encouraged bilateral and multilateral partners to support the force and to expeditiously convene a planning conference to ensure the coordination of donor assistance. Thus far the force is funded by the European Union, France, and the G5 countries themselves. This is yet another example of the tensions over funding ad-hoc initiatives and points to longer-term controversy over the proposed use of assessed contributions of UN member states for financing 25% of the AU’s operations.

Following up from a September 11 joint consultative meeting between the Security Council and the Peace and Security Council, it is clear that many issues remain unresolved in the AU-UN partnership, and that the lack of predictable and sustainable financing options, which has long been a constraint on maintaining regional peace and security, continues to be key among them.

The HIPPO report highlighted the broadening gap between the mandate and capacity of peacekeeping operations that results when finances are involved, especially with the current pressure to cut the costs of peacekeeping operations. The open debate will thus provide an opportunity for discussing the difficult aspect of financing of AU peace support operations, in the context of a shrinking UN peacekeeping budget.

A deal over assessed contributions had largely been driven by former United States President Barrack Obama, as a legacy contribution to the African continent. With the new US administration wanting to cut its contribution to the UN and preferring bilateral commitments and partnerships over multilateral ones, the financing side of the UN-AU partnership is left without a Security Council champion.

In order for the discussion on the AU-UN relationship to progress, it will be critical that the AU puts its own house in order. While sustainable external financing options of AU peace operations will play an important role at the open debate, AU progress towards its own reform could provide a sign of potential positive change at the organization.

The appointment of a head and a deputy head of the AU’s newly formed Institutional Reforms Unit this month is also an important step forward in increasing the organization’s effectiveness. It could assist in bringing more AU member states on board with reform efforts, and ensuring wider buy-in toward more effective structures and approaches to activities.

Meanwhile, the introduction of peacebuilding as an agenda item during the recent AU-UN consultations could be seen as indicating broader and closer collaboration between the two institutions, moving beyond the current focus on peace operations alone. Working alongside the UN’s sustaining peace agenda and the AU’s own post-conflict reconstruction and development focus, it indicates the potential for increased emphasis on more holistic responses to conflict challenges, including prevention and addressing the root causes of conflicts.

It is clear that the AU-UN partnership has seen increased challenges of late, and requires much further work to ensure a successful future. A more balanced financial relationship could take the partnership one step further, but will only do so if adhered to by both parties. A resolution on Wednesday, driven by the Ethiopians, to reaffirm commitment toward the partnership would be a major achievement. Sustained effort will then need to go into creating a more clearly defined division of labor and a burden-sharing arrangement to enhance cooperation and efficiency and provide the most effective responses to African conflict.

Gustavo de Carvalho is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria. Lesley Connolly is a Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute, New York.