After Annual Conference, UN and AU Move From Alignment to Impact

UN Secretary-General António Guterres and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat at a press conference during the Third African Union-United Nations Annual Conference. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Over the past three years, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and his counterpart at the African Union (AU) Commission, Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, have personally devoted significant political capital towards fostering greater cooperation between the two organizations.

The partnership has been embodied by two overarching cooperation agreements: the UN-AU Joint Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security, and the AU-UN Framework on the Implementation of Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Building on this momentum, the two organizations have since alternated the hosting of an Annual Conference between the leadership of the UN and the AU Commission. The Third Annual Conference, held in New York on May 6, offers important insights into some of the critical peace and security issues confronting the African continent, touching on both thematic and country-specific files. While it is far from the only time that senior UN and AU leadership interact, this standing forum helps sustain momentum for the partnership between the two organizations, particularly when it relates to peace and security matters.

The Annual Conference took place at a particularly significant moment for the UN Secretary-General and AU Commission Chairperson to better align their thinking and their institutional responses to pressing political and security issues, at a time where certain UN and AU member states have increasingly become divided on key elements of the partnership.

First, the two organizations reviewed the detailed declaration that outlines a range of operational provisions to harmonize how the UN and AU cooperate in peace operations, including on compliance frameworks, financial management, and joint decision-making. This declaration emerged in December 2018 as the UN Security Council struggled to agree on a resolution endorsing the principle of using UN assessed contributions to finance AU-led peace support operations. This framework was described by one Security Council diplomat as a remarkable achievement that epitomized how the UN Secretariat and AU Commission support one another. The declaration now allows the secretary-general and chairperson to report back to their member states in advance of the two Councils possibly revisiting the issue during South Africa’s Security Council presidency in October 2019.

Second, the emphasis placed by the conference on the AU’s Silencing the Guns by 2020 initiative further highlighted a key area of cooperation that cuts across the collective political and security interests of both organizations. In spite of this, there remain questions that the two organizations need to answer regarding whether the initiative can effectively achieve its objectives within a realistic timeframe. To this end, recent collaboration between the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the three elected African members (A3) of the UN Security Council is instructive.

During the latter half of 2018 and into early 2019, the AU PSC worked closely with the A3 to draft a Security Council resolution endorsing the Silencing the Guns initiative. In contrast to the failed negotiations in December 2018 on financing AU-led peace operations, these discussions led to the successful adoption of Security Council resolution 2457 this past February, highlighting the Council’s recognition of the partnership’s political importance and of the AU’s ownership of efforts to address structural drivers of conflict on the African continent.

It remains to be seen how best the UN Security Council will advance this resolution moving forward, given its broad and limited nature in terms of practical and operational commitments. However, it is still a welcomed development that the AU Commission and the UN Secretariat have established monitoring mechanisms to coordinate their respective support for the implementation of the Silencing the Guns initiative.

Third, this year’s conference helped sustain momentum for the Central African Republic’s (CAR) peace agreement. While shepherding these negotiations, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smaїl Chergui, worked closely with the UN Under Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre LaCroix, and the Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAS), including through multiple joint visits to CAR in 2018-9 and by attending peace negotiations in Khartoum in February.

This process highlighted one of the many ways in which the two organizations can complement one another on specific country situations—with the AU providing political legitimacy to lead engagements with conflicting parties and the neighboring countries through intense negotiations, and the UN playing a more supporting role. Both the UN and AU recognize the importance of the implementation phase of the CAR peace agreement, and unpacking how to share the resource burdens amidst different mandates and capacities on the ground is an important next step.

While the annual conference plays an important role in consolidating the partnership’s positive momentum, perhaps its true value lies in the space it provides for senior UN and AU leaders to work through difficult files, and to attempt to foster stronger alignment between the two organizations and among their respective member states. This year’s communique makes clear some of the issues requiring greater alignment.

The current crisis in Libya is an urgent concern for both organizations. Despite the March 2019 joint visit by UN and AU officials, the follow-up high-level meeting of the Libya Quartet, and other regular engagements on Libya, both organizations have struggled to implement an integrated political approach to challenges in the country, with disagreements rooted in the diplomatic fallout of NATO’s 2011 military intervention. The annual conference’s communique is particularly sharp on this point, explicitly noting that the “Secretary-General and the Chairperson noted the imperative for a single roadmap for Libya, while acknowledging the complementary roles of both organizations and regional actors.”

Improved alignment to counteract a “rapidly deteriorating security situation” in the Sahel is also an ongoing urgent priority for the two organizations. Neither is immune to the proliferation of strategies on the Sahel, which some diplomats have estimated number close to eighteen bilateral and multilateral strategies. Both organizations have their own respective strategies (UN Integrated Strategy in the Sahel and the AU Strategy for the Sahel), political missions (UNOWAS and MISAHEL), envoys, and mandated security arrangements (MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel-Joint Force). With the alarming rise in violence across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, improved coordination and cooperation between the two organizations is an essential starting point for realizing more tangible impacts on the ground.

There are still missing ingredients in the partnership between the UN and the AU, particularly in the need to more systematically align member state cooperation with the cooperation forged by the UN Secretariat and AU Commission. The two AU PSC and UN Security Council interact with one another less frequently than their counterparts in the UN system and the AU Commission, outside of a joint annual consultative meeting. Fostering greater cohesion and alignment between the two councils, as well as between the councils and their organizations, remains an important next step that can help sustain momentum for the partnership and make a tangible impact in difficult conflict environments.

Daniel Forti is a Policy Analyst at the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Priyal Singh is Researcher on Peace Operations and Peacebuilding at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. Gustavo de Carvalho is Senior Researcher on Peace Operations and Peacebuilding at ISS.

This article is published in the context of a joint research project on the UN-AU partnership in peace and security between IPI and ISS, culminating in a report to be released in the fall of 2019. A version of this article was also published on the ISS Today platform.