In this paper I discuss why there is a need for strong strategic partnership between the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU). I also touch on some of the challenges that at times undermine UN-AU relations, and I conclude with a few recommendations for further enhancing this important partnership.
Three considerations explain the importance of regional approaches to peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding: (1) conflicts are rarely isolated within state borders, (2) those who are closer to the problem are often in a better position to understand and influence it, and (3) their proximity ensures that they have a long-term interest in its outcomes.
The most important regional relationship for the United Nations (UN) is its relationship with the African Union (AU). African capacities are an important resource for UN peacekeeping. Africa contributes approximately 50% of all the UN’s uniformed peacekeepers, 60% of its international civilian peacekeepers and 80% of its national peacekeeping staff. UN support is also a critical enabler for AU operations, as the UN has provided some form of support to all AU peace operations to date. The UN is also an important exit strategy partner for the AU, as all AU peace operations to date have been handed over to the UN once sufficient stability has been achieved. The effectiveness of UN and AU peace operations are thus mutually interdependent on several levels.
The peace operations the AU undertakes represent local responses to global problems. Most African conflicts are global in the sense that they are heavily influenced, if not driven, by external factors like the global war on terror; the exploitation of natural resources by multinational companies; capital flight facilitated and solicited by the international banking system, and transnational organized crime, driven by markets in the West and Asia for narcotics, human trafficking, timber and illegally caught fish. Effective African peace operations thus represent a significant contribution to the global common good.
Institutionalising the partnership
At the strategic level the UN and AU need to foster a common narrative that is mutually re-enforcing and respectful of each other’s roles and comparative advantages. The UN Security Council and the AU’s Peace and Security Council have started to meet regularly, and these kind of meetings need to be further deepened so as to ensure even greater coherence between the approaches of UNSC and the AU PSC on the many conflicts that are on their mutual agenda.
At the operational level the UN and AU have been meeting regularly at the desk-to-desk level, but these meetings now need to start delivering specific outcomes, such as developing guidelines for joint assessments, shared analysis, joint planning, AU-UN inter-mission coordination and cooperation, mission support, best practices, join evaluations and joint SOPs for transitions. Almost all AU peace operations will be accompanied by UN Special Political Missions, and as almost all UN peacekeeping operations in Africa will be accompanied by AU Special Political Missions, such a set of pre-agreed joint guidelines will make it easier for both organisations to involve each other from the earliest stages in assessments, planning, coordination mechanisms, mission support, benchmarks and evaluation. This is especially important in those cases where AU peace operations transition into UN peacekeeping operations.
Towards a predictable division of labour
The conflict dynamics the UN and African peace operations have to deal with continue to change rapidly and have become more complex, asymmetrical and challenging. In many contemporary conflict zones violent extremists and transnational organised criminals deliberately choose to use violence to pursue their objectives, with civilian populations, aid workers and increasingly peacekeepers as targets.
Effectively managing such conflicts require robust peace operation capabilities that can contain and manage aggressors and ensure basic stability, so that political and humanitarian work can be undertaken to alleviate suffering and seek medium- to longer-term political solutions. Today, all the AU and approximately two thirds of the UN’s peacekeepers are deployed amidst on-going conflict in missions where there is no peace agreement in place, i.e. ‘no peace to keep’.
In this context, another important factor in the partnership is the way in which the two organisations compliment and augment each other. The UN is good at implementing peace agreements and consolidating peace process, but it is not well suited for enforcement actions. The AU has demonstrated that it is willing and able to undertake stabilisation and enforcement operations, but it does not have the capacity to implement comprehensive peace agreements.
A partnership model has emerged where the AU and regional entities, with support from the UN and partners, act as first responders to African crises in, for instance: Burundi, CAR, Darfur and Mali. When basic stability has been achieved these missions were handed over to the UN, and the African military and police peacekeepers were re-hatted and became UN peacekeepers. Somalia has been the exception in that sufficient stability has not yet been achieved to trigger a handover to the UN. However, the AU and UN have jointly developing benchmarks for a future transition. In the meantime AMISOM and UNSOM are working closely together and both are supported by UN Support Mission to AMISOM (UNSOA).
UN support for AU peace operations
The AU lacks predictable funding for the peace operations it undertakes, and this dilemma impacts negatively on the UN. For instance, the UN had to – as a last resort - take over the AU’s missions in Mali and CAR earlier than it would have had too if the AU missions had the resources necessary to stay a bit longer and ensure more stability. Because they did not have the resources, the UN had to take over these missions and deploy stabilisation type missions that go beyond its peacekeeping principles and doctrine. The UN will have to consider more predictable ways in which the UN and other partners can support AU and other regional peace operations. The most recent operations against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin is a good example.
More efforts are needed to creatively and innovatively find ways to support African peace operations. For instance, the UN can make some of its Department of Field Service capabilities available to the AU, including its Brindisi and Kampala logistical depots; include the AU in some on-call procurement arrangements, for instance strategic airlift; and partner with the AU in developing essential mission support planning and managing capabilities in the AU Commission and AU missions.
Although the UN is ultimately responsible for international pace and security, cooperating with regional organisations in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle-East and Latin America, help the UN to carry out its responsibility with more efficiency and effectiveness than would have been the case if the UN acted on its own. Such cooperation also builds local capacity and ownership and thus help to prevent future conflicts.
Among these relationships, the relationship between the UN and the AU stand out as the most crucial for international peace and security. The effectiveness of UN and AU peace operations are mutually interdependent on several levels, and a concerted effort is needed from both institutions to ensure that this relationship is further deepened and institutionalised. In this regard, the Member States of both organisations – and all the Member States of the AU are of course also Members of the UN -have a shared responsibility to instruct, monitor, follow-up and ultimately hold both institutions accountable for maintaining a close and well functioning strategic partnership.