In his statement at the opening session of the recent high-level event on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, Miroslav Lajčák stated that, “Sustaining Peace cannot be a UN export. It is not something we can make, here, and deliver to countries and societies. We can only succeed in partnership.” The role of partnerships was also a central theme at the high-level event, including the crucial role that regional and sub-regional partners can play in sustaining peace, with the oft-cited example of how regional action in The Gambia prevented escalation. What “partnership” means in reality, however, is still somewhat unclear. As the UN works to operationalize partnerships in its efforts to advance the peacebuilding and sustaining peace agendas, the work that regional organizations are already doing in terms of prevention and sustaining peace provides helpful insights.
What is becoming increasingly evident is that sustaining peace requires ongoing in-country partnerships between member states and regional actors. The UN describes member states, often those in the region or with strong historical ties, as “crucial sources of support,” but there is still a basic knowledge gap of what needs to be bridged between policy and practical implementation.
In order to fill this gap, over the last two years, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has carried out research on the role of regional actors in peacebuilding, looking at the cases of Liberia and South Sudan. This research has shown that engagements by African regional and sub-regional organisations can be highly successful if there is a unified and supportive environment. This is largely due to regional organizations having greater legitimacy, sustained interest, and the ability to share skills more relevant to local contexts. In addition, neighboring countries are more attuned to these conditions. By virtue of being African, they are better trusted by their peers and have greater political legitimacy to influence fellow decision-makers and political elites in the continent. Having had similar development trajectories, these countries are also better placed to understand the contexts of their neighbors and suggest more applicable models for building peace, based on their experiences.
One of the prime examples of strong regional actors working to prevent conflict and sustain peace in West Africa is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In Liberia, ECOWAS has been instrumental in sustaining peace. Its effort has been helped by recognition from the national government and the international community. ECOWAS has trained political parties, built the capacities of women and media representatives during elections, and engaged civil society, which is demonstrative of their commitment to inclusivity and national ownership. The ECOWAS experience has shown that regional organizations can act fast and effectively if they are given the opportunity to develop and harness skills of early warning systems, mediation, and mechanisms for engagement.
In this regard, ECOWAS has a Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, a framework on conflict prevention, and has shown that it is willing to use force when these frameworks are contravened. ECOWAS’ decisive action has not only been seen in The Gambia—where it it was willing to use military might to enforce a democratic national consensus—it also recently imposed sanctions on Guinea-Bissau. This shows a range of methods that ECOWAS is willing to deploy to ensure adherence to its own democratic standards, all rooted in frameworks and protocols.
However, ECOWAS could be supported by additional resources. While it has instituted a 0.5 percent levy for all goods in the region to be used for its operational activities, many countries in the region still struggle economically, meaning that ECOWAS still relies on external funding. Additionally, given that the United Nations says it lacks sufficient resources for its peacebuilding activities, transferring resources to regional organizations can in itself be a cost-effective measure—not only because of the geographical proximity of UN missions and purchasing power parity, but also because of the high costs associated with international salaries.
Another important element of regional support for sustaining peace—as noted by the UN—is a common vision and necessary resolve among member states. Unfortunately, there are more examples of what results when these are lacking, as in the case of South Sudan and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Internal divisions among IGAD member states has undermined the peace process in South Sudan and prevented the African Union (AU) from intervening as forcefully as it would like, a dynamic noted by ISS in 2015. But the situation in South Sudan is further complicated through the different approaches of the international community, including the troika (the US, UK, and Norway) and African partners. This does not mean that IGAD should not be engaged at all in such processes, but there is a need for genuine reflection on the comparative advantages of different actors at different points across the peace spectrum.
In this context, the UN has recognized that the AU has a number of peacebuilding frameworks that complement its own peacebuilding role. This resulted in the signing of a Joint UN-African Union Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security in 2017, and the adoption of a memorandum of understanding by the AU Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office. This now needs to move beyond talkshops to joint approaches and activities.
In pursuance of this objective, a clearer division of labor worth between the AU and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) is essential. The AU considers RECs to be the building blocks of its peace and security architecture, but this has not translated into practice, which has thus sometimes delayed any kind of engagement. The biggest challenge in this regard is that the AU works with eight RECs, which have all developed differently. Some are more advanced in promoting responses to peace and security, while others have limited capacities or different focus areas. A lack of communication and overlapping roles and structures between the AU and the RECs also means that resources are sometimes duplicated. Even the AU has not always acted as fast as it should. It has been noted by the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) that 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.” This includes its response to Burundi.
Partnerships for peacebuilding and sustaining peace will require genuine reflection to determine the comparative advantages of different organizations and to further understanding on the part of the UN on the dynamics and abilities of regional organizations. This entails supporting African-led initiatives and requires having difficult political conversations that are frank and honest. As in the case of South Sudan, the lack of coordination among the AU, IGAD, UN, and international actors has ultimately led to a situation where initiatives to build peace have been undermined.
Finally, true partnerships will mean a transfer of resources from the UN to African organizations and a genuine downsizing of UN operations. UN operations would also need to be more realistic and reflect the needs on the ground and African sensitivities. Although African countries lack the resources to pay for their ambitious plans, they have shown their commitment to sustaining peace. Donors have provided support, but not necessarily aligned to the local context. To ensure sustained peace, genuine partnerships are needed between all actors that respect and foster trust among each other. As Lajčák noted in the closing of the high-level meeting in April, “regional organizations have their own toolboxes. The United Nations must learn from, and support, them.”
Amanda Lucey is a senior research at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Liezelle Kumalo is a researcher at ISS.