Can the UN and AU Navigate the Shifting Landscape of Multilateral Peace Operations?

Ugandan police officers boarding an aircraft at Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, after completing their one-year term serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

Cooperation between the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) is a pillar of Africa’s contemporary peace and security landscape. From frequent diplomatic messaging to joint peace operations, the partnership has evolved in both breadth and depth since the AU’s emergence in 2002. Rhetorical support for the UN-AU partnership resonates across both organizations’ highest levels, exemplified by regular meetings of their respective senior leaders and executive member state bodies.

Given the increasing complexity of security threats across the continent in recent years, a well-functioning UN-AU partnership is necessary to sustain effective multilateral responses to the continent’s myriad simmering conflicts and crises. But despite notable growth in many areas of their partnership, the UN and AU are rapidly approaching a crossroads on how to collectively support multilateral peace operations.

Growing divides on how to respond to the shifting landscape of multilateral peace operations bring this crossroads into sharp relief. If unaddressed, especially by permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members and powerful member states at the AU, the UN-AU partnership is in jeopardy of backsliding after years of steady progress.

Multilateral peace operations, particularly those led by the UN and the AU, remain a key feature of the continent’s peace and security landscape. The UN’s four big missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and South Sudan (MONUSCO, MINUSCA, MINUSMA, and UNMISS respectively) are billion-dollar operations that constitute the bulk of UN peacekeeping expenditure. African countries contribute approximately 47 percent of all uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping operations (including four of the top ten total contributors as of March 2021), oftentimes operating in their own neighborhoods.

The AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) remains the AU’s flagship peace support operation and is backed by an extensive UN support package and logistics mission. And the AU and UN are closing their joint mission in Darfur (UNAMID) after thirteen years of operations, marking the end of a unique experiment in partnership peacekeeping.

Cooperation on peace operations is an unquestioned mainstay of the UN-AU partnership. But the foundations of how the partners cooperate on peace operations are coming under increasing strain. This is due to a number of issues which include: a persistently uncertain budgetary environment, a growing reliance on ad-hoc counterterrorism operations, and the challenges posed by fragile political settlements and peace agreements.

Sustainable political alignment between the UNSC and the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) remains a difficult and contested space, especially considering the observed  “misperceptions regarding the roles and responsibilities” each body has for the other. Struggles to muster unified responses to situations like those in Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, and Mozambique have dominated public attention in recent months, particularly as neither the UN nor the AU has mandated operational responses to match their relatively limited pronouncements.

The net effect of these shortcomings is that the UN and AU are seen as increasingly ineffectual actors in rolling out comprehensive responses to emergent crises. This lack of unity and common strategic direction, particularly at the level of the AU PSC and UNSC, has further spilled over into the engagements of Council member states in countries in which multilateral peace operations are active.

Recent challenges in CAR, Mali and the Sahel, and Somalia are indicative of these divisions, and have placed strain on the two Councils’ efforts to jointly align their support to these ongoing operations. These challenges persist in spite of the efforts of elected African members on the UN Security Council (the A3 bloc) who have attempted to bridge the two bodies and are now recognized as a vital part of a healthy UN-AU partnership.

Overarching political divides are seeping into other aspects of the partnership on peacekeeping, with the deadlock on peacekeeping financing as an obvious sore point. Political fallout from the failed 2018 and 2019 negotiations over a UNSC resolution is still felt today. Even though diplomats in New York tread carefully when raising the subject, these sensitivities have spilled into the open during recent UN Security Council discussions on AMISOM and the G5-Sahel Joint Force.

New momentum for these issues could emerge over the coming months. The AU PSC recently requested that the AU Commission “develop a common African position paper” on the subject. Both organizations have already laid some of the technical foundations upon which any agreement would need to be built.

There are also hopes that the new US administration will embrace the Obama administration’s willingness to talk instead of the Trump administration’s outright rejection of the process. And the slow but steady capitalization of the AU Peace Fund (now estimated at approximately $204 million), combined with the implications of the new European Peace Facility, creates a new urgency amidst a rapidly shifting funding landscape. But it’s important to be clear-eyed about the near-term prospects for a meaningful agreement, particularly as rebuilding continental consensus will not be an easy process.

While the financing debate is perhaps the most publicized source of tension, other fractures are emerging. The shift towards regional, ad-hoc counterterrorism initiatives is pushing the boundaries of the contemporary landscape of multilateral peace operations, and by extension the UN-AU partnership.

Ad-hoc coalitions operate under both UNSC mandates and AU PSC authorization, but are not operated by the organizations and therefore are not subject to the same human rights, financial, or operational compliance mechanisms. And while they fill a strategic gap that UN peace operations are not intended to address, these counterterrorism initiatives are not often underpinned by comprehensive strategies that target the underlying drivers of instability. Because these operations often work adjacent to or alongside UN peace operations (such as MINUSMA support to the G5-Sahel Joint Force), they expose difficult questions around the future of UN and AU peace operations in counterterrorism contexts.

Africa’s peace and security architecture rests upon effective relationships between the AU and the continent’s Regional Economic Communities and Regional Mechanisms, based on the principle of subsidiarity. While the UN-AU partnership is one political center of gravity, there is in reality a mosaic of multilateral responses shaped by regional and sub-regional actors and interests, which are not always coherent or complimentary. How ad-hoc initiatives such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) and the Lake Chad Basin Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) fit into this landscape are emblematic of these dynamics.

Host countries, neighbors, and powerful allies can now forum shop between different operations, oftentimes favoring short-term security priorities at the expense of holistic commitments to improving governance, human rights conditions, and socio-economic equality. There is also a risk of further blurring the distinctions between multilateral peace operations and counterterrorism initiatives, especially in the eyes of the people they are meant to serve. How the UN and the AU navigate this landscape will have an outsized impact on the partnership’s evolution.

These challenges accentuate the headwinds that the UN-AU partnership on peace operations will likely face over the coming years. But these challenges are not necessarily unique or insurmountable. The past four years have been a period of significant growth for the partnership, driven in large part by the efforts of AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Navigating the crossroads that will soon emerge on the future of peace operations will not only require continued leadership from the UN Secretariat and AU Commission, but also the renewed political buy-in of member states to work in partnership and find common ground on difficult political and security issues.

As the continent’s peace and security environment grows in complexity, the UN-AU partnership cannot afford to regress. Strengthened cooperation on peace operations is key to not only sustaining the partnership, but also solidifying a new era of multilateralism defined by shared political strategies, values, and principles.

Daniel Forti is a policy analyst at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Priyal Singh is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.

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.