Toward a More Effective UN-AU Partnership

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IPI held a policy forum on November 7th on the evolution of the strategic partnership between the United Nations and the African Union, with a specific focus on how they undertake conflict prevention and crisis management efforts. Organized with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the African Union Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, and the Training for Peace Programme, the forum also served to launch a research report on the subject produced jointly by IPI and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Co-authored by IPI Policy Analyst Daniel Forti and ISS Researcher Priyal Singh, the report looks at the partnership at the member state level in the UN Security Council and AU Peace and Security Council, as well as at the operational level between various UN and AU entities. It also assesses the partnership across several thematic issues, including the AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative;  mediation; women, peace, and security; electoral support; peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction and development, and youth, peace, and security. The report offers six recommendations for the UN, the AU and their member states to strengthen the partnership.

Bintou Keita, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, UN Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, identified the reasons why conflict keeps reemerging across Africa as “exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination” and said the most effective response was through partnerships. She noted approvingly that at the political and policy making level, the word that most recurred was “joint” as in “joint visit, joint communiques that is becoming more common.”

Jerry Matthews Matjila, the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the UN, and Odd-Inge Kvalheim, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway, made opening remarks, with Ambassador Kvalheim praising the report as “a valuable tool for understanding the relationship between the UN and AU to guide their efforts and also to point out where support from others is needed” and Ambassador Matjila talking about the October 2019 South African presidency of the Security Council during which the three African members of the Council (A3)—South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, and the Côte d’ Ivoire—acted in concert and coordination. “The A3 in 10 months had 13 common statements, you never had that before,” he said. “The A3 became like something you have to cross on African issues. Why? Because they were united.” Reflecting this assertiveness, South Africa hosted the 13th Joint Annual Consultative visit between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council during its Council presidency.

Underscoring the need for effective partnership between the UN and the AU, Mr. Forti noted that the report’s focus comes at a time “when conflict prevention is a priority for both organizations, but neither has the political, financial, and operational tools to prevent conflicts or manage crises on their own.” He said while the two councils are increasingly interdependent, they are defined by “an overriding tension” because their relationship is “fundamentally unequal in terms of powers, authority, resources, and political status.”

Describing the complementary strengths of the UN and AU in conflict prevention and crisis management, he said, “The AU often has more legitimacy to engage national actors, including governments, and can therefore access more political entry points to engage on a crisis before or when it emerges. With its global mandate for international peace and security and its diverse field presences, the UN has more operational and logistical capabilities and a larger, more predictable budget. These comparative advantages can color how day-to-day interactions unfold.”

Mr. Forti said these dynamics can also force the two institutions into what he called “a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the UN may defer to the AU because of its push for political ownership and leadership while on the other hand, the AU may defer to the UN due to its greater resources, capacities, and in-country presences.”

Like the relationship between the two councils, the partnership between the UN Secretariat and AU Commission remains a “work in progress, but has grown considerably in recent years” Mr. Forti said. There are important formal mechanisms for engagements, but “in reality, the UN and AU depends just as much on day-to-day collaboration, both in headquarters and in the field.”

Mr. Singh highlighted three of the thematic areas that are priorities for the partnership. The AU’s Silencing the Guns initiative aims to end all wars by 2020, and has become a beacon for the two organizations in guiding their conflict prevention efforts. The two organizations work closely on the varied mediation efforts in Africa through a range of political and policy instruments. However, “the UN-AU partnership must account for the heterogeneous nature of the various political institutions involved in mediation, as well as these various mandates, capacities, and comparative advantages,” he said.

The women, peace and security (WPS) agenda is potentially another fruitful entry point for joint UN-AU action, but Mr. Singh counseled care in applying it properly.  “While opportunities for more impactful UN-AU engagements on the WPS agenda are plentiful, the challenge again, however, is how well these engagements are coordinated and managed to ensure collective, coherent, strategies and responses to advance this critical agenda,” he said.

Fatima Kyari Mohammed, the AU’s Permanent Observer to the UN, commended the increasing UN-AU collaboration and the growing institutionalization of the partnership, but said there was still more to be done to put it into action effectively. “Implementation is what really matters,” she said. “Post-adoption is where the work starts.”

Elaborating on key points in the report, Ms. Mohammed said it was critical to ensure that cooperation proceeds in a “systematic, protocoled, predictable” manner, that council-to-council cooperation go beyond the annual meeting of the two bodies, and that joint analysis is followed up by joint action.

Citing the UN Charter’s Chapter VIII governing regional arrangements, she asked, “How can we strike a balance between the role of the Security Council in the maintenance of peace and security and the ability of the AU to develop its own capacity and take its own action? We have yet to find a clear answer.”

In closing remarks, Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher at the ISS, highlighted the importance to the African continent of multilateral institutions like the AU and the UN. “We are in a moment in which it is almost a cliché to say that multilateralism is at stake,” he said. “Many countries mention the idea of being small countries because together they can have more impact. This is why it is important to strengthen these two multilateral institutions.”

IPI Senior Fellow Sarah Taylor moderated the discussion.