Security Council chamber

How Can African States Become More Influential in the UN Security Council?

The empty chamber of the United Nations Security Council before a meeting. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

The bloc of three elected African states on the United Nations Security Council—known as the A3—has grown considerably in stature and diplomatic capacity since the creation of the African Union (AU) in 2002 and the beginning of the partnership between it and the UN. Although African issues have not traditionally been contentious in the Security Council, increasing geopolitical tensions among Council members are starting to spillover onto these files, much to the detriment of collective political action. If the A3 bloc wants to ensure its relevance and influence in 2020 and beyond, Africa will need to ensure that unified positions are at the core of its approaches.

Africa is numerically significant at the Security Council: in 2018, over 50 percent of Security Council meetings, 60 percent of its outcome documents, and 70 percent of its resolutions with Chapter VII mandates concerned African peace and security issues. Furthermore, African member states comprise nearly 28 percent of the UN’s overall membership (54 out of 193 members), providing significant regional political backing to the A3. Niger, South Africa, and Tunisia are the A3 members in 2020. Either Djibouti or Kenya will replace South Africa on the Security Council starting in January 2021.

Table 1: African States on the UN Security Council (2004–2020)

Despite spending much of its time on African issues, many Security Council members have previously treated them as marginal or less strategic when compared with Syria, North Korea, or the Middle East peace process. As a result, African files—including many UN peacekeeping operations—have often avoided major contestations.

However, intense negotiations on Libya and the Central African Republic earlier this year reflect the growing fault lines within the Security Council. The Council’s five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States—are mired in a period of significant impasse and conflicting strategic interests, including between once strong allies. As a result, conflicting strategic interests that inhibit collective action in other parts of the world are now impacting the Security Council’s engagements in Africa.

In such a context, the A3 bloc plays a critical role in shaping Security Council debates, breaking geopolitical deadlock, and guiding the Council’s collective action. African unity is essential towards achieving these efforts.

A3 members can show such unity through a range of approaches. For example, they can issue joint statements to the Council, define joint negotiating positions for Council outcome documents, and convene joint press stakeouts to deliver key messages to the general public. The role played by the AU permanent observer mission to the UN is of particular importance, as it can help to coordinate A3 and AU engagements, facilitate regular interactions with diplomats and officials in Addis Ababa, and retain institutional memory of both the AU and the UN.

Unified A3 positions on African files are strengthened particularly when informed by decisions of the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC), as they provide legitimacy, credibility, and leverage in A3 engagements with other Council members. Even though each A3 member on its own has limited influence in the UN Security Council, a unified A3 bloc—particularly when backed by positions endorsed by the wider membership of the AU—is able to strongly influence Council outcomes. In 2019, the A3 delivered 16 joint statements in the UN Security Council during both country-specific and thematic debates, an indication of the unity of its members.

Despite the benefits of collective A3 engagement, political and institutional dynamics can threaten to disrupt the bloc.

Unified A3 positions are frequently tested by broader geopolitical dynamics, as well as the interests of powerful Council members. Divisions among the permanent membership can mean that A3 alliances and unity often come under strain.

As a result, negotiations on one file rarely occur in isolation, and instead require the A3 to remain unified across a much larger set of negotiations (on both African and non-African files) in order to achieve a particular outcome. A3 members are continuously identifying and negotiating their own interests; other Council members can take advantage by either attempting to align with these different positions or trying to split the A3 bloc.

A3 countries, like other Council members, have to navigate and pursue a multiplicity of national, regional, continental, and global interests that are not always complementary. This is especially complicated when national actors, subregions (e.g., Regional Economic Communities), and the AUPSC diverge on a particular file. Such challenges were highlighted in January 2019, when there was considerable divergence between African members, subregional organizations, and the AU itself regarding the way forward after the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s presidential elections.

In addition, the UN Security Council and AUPSC are not identical institutions: they have different compositions, mandates, and working methods, and therefore are informed by different political interests and incentives. Getting the two bodies to constantly mirror one another in how they operate and respond to the same files is an enormous expectation placed on the A3. This expectation grows even larger considering the bloc’s rotating membership, and that there are steep learning curves for each member when joining the UN Security Council as well as for working within the A3 bloc.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the A3 can take advantage of opportunities to collectively influence the UN Security Council.

Council members, particularly the other elected members, turn to the A3 when a political or security crisis breaks out on the continent. When African institutions take decisive positions, the A3 members can unequivocally use them to guide the UN Security Council. For example, in June 2019, the A3 broke a deadlock within the Council and shaped its press statements on Sudan after the AUPSC suspended the Sudanese government.

Given that both the UN Security Council and AUPSC discuss a number of the same files, the A3 can help align the organization’s agendas and find coherence between their discussions. UN peace operations have fixed reporting cycles, therefore identifying when country-specific discussions will take place is relatively straight forward. But merely aligning calendar dates is not enough if the debates do not build on one another. Annual deliberations on the dual mandate renewal of the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) are perhaps the most apparent example of coherent sequencing, where the AUPSC has recently adopted its own mandate in the weeks leading up to the UN Security Council deadline.

South Africa, in particular, can play an important role in fostering collaboration between the UN and AU since it will serve on the UN Security Council concurrently with its chairing of the AU Assembly in 2020. As AU chair, South Africa has stronger diplomatic weight to advocate for AU positions and goals within the UN Security Council. In particular, one should expect South Africa to increasingly highlight the AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative, especially in light of UN Security Council resolution 2457 of February 2019 on the same subject, and South Africa will be hosting an extraordinary AU summit on the initiative in May 2020.

With an ambitious mandate and amid challenging geopolitical dynamics, the A3’s evolution into a coherent political bloc within the UN Security Council is laudable. Nonetheless, there remain valuable opportunities to strengthen its members abilities to navigate the Council while remaining unified, principled and linked closely to Addis Ababa. Even with complex and challenging times ahead for the Security Council, the A3’s leadership in guiding Africa-related decisions is necessary for long-term conflict prevention and crisis management.

Gustavo de Carvalho is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. Daniel Forti is a policy analyst at the International Peace Institute (IPI). 

This article is published as part of a joint project between IPI and ISS on the UN-AU partnership in peace and security. A version of it was also published in ISS Today.