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The AU-UN strategic partnership in an era of networked multilateralism

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Picture: Eskinder Debebe / UN Photo – The African Union and United Nations are deepening and strengthening their strategic partnership in a new era of networked multilateralism. The global peace and security architecture is adapting to the ongoing transition in the global order from a unipolar system, which was dominated by the United States and Europe, to a new still evolving multipolar or polycentric order in which the global order is co-managed by several major and middle powers, the writer says.

By Cedric de Coning

The relationship between the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) has been evolving in the context of the changing global order as well as the growth in the agency of the African Union and other African institutions over the last twenty years.

The global peace and security architecture is adapting to the ongoing transition in the global order from a unipolar system, which was dominated by the United States and Europe, to a new still evolving multipolar or polycentric order in which the global order is co-managed by several major and middle powers.

The United Nations was established in 1945 as the Second World War ended, to maintain international peace and security. It has done remarkably well in its first 75 years of existence and it has played a major role in a significant decline in wars and conflict-related deaths over this period. However, in the last decade – as the unipolar order waned and uncertainty increased – these gains have been reversed and the number of wars and conflict-related deaths have significantly increased.

These global tensions have also affected the functioning of the United Nations Security Council. No new UN peacekeeping operations have been mandated since 2014, and in the past 12 months alone the governments of Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have asked the UN to withdraw the UN peacekeeping operations that were stationed in these countries.

Over this same period, the African Union was established in 2000, initiating a significant project to develop the African peace and security capacity. Since then, the African Union and African regional organisations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have collectively deployed more than 20 peace operations. Today, most conflicts in Africa are managed or mediated by African peace and security institutions.

While the UN is under increasing pressure as global power rivalry influences the functioning of the UN Security Council, the African Union and other African institutions are asserting their growing agency, including over the management of the continent’s peace and security. As a result a new global peace and security architecture is evolving, most prominently in Africa and Europe, where regional organisations are co-managing their own regional peace and security alongside the United Nations.

In the UN Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace, he refers to a new era of networked multilateralism, where several regional and sub-regional organisations co-manage international peace and security alongside the United Nations. This networked multilateralism is particularly evident in African crises, where several international and regional organisations operate alongside each other, from Somalia to the Sahel, or from Sudan to the DRC.

These include the UN, the AU, sub-regional organisations like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Sudan or SADC in Mozambique, as well as a host of other institutions including the European Union and International Financial Institutions. In most contexts these organisations complement each other and their combined influence over many domains contributes to maintaining international peace and security. However, in certain situations there are competing interests that generate negative effects.

We can observe that where the UN or AU has invested in providing security rather than pursuing political solutions, a stabilisation dilemma arises

In this era of networked multilateralism there is thus a need to create and sustain mutually beneficial partnerships – including between the African Union and the United Nations – that can complement each other. In the African context in particular, we need the capabilities and comparative strengths of both the African Union, regional organisations and the United Nations.

The African Union and the regional organisations have political proximity, related legitimacy and influence, and in most cases the military capability to deploy and influence the security situation. The United Nations has global credibility, the legal authority under international law to authorise the use of force, 75 years of peacekeeping experience as well as access to a system of agencies, funds and programmes that can provide humanitarian assistance, relief and recovery, and a range of development and peacebuilding functions.

However, what both the UN and AU has learned is that the most important dimension of any attempt to end a conflict and assist national actors to establish peace is a clear political project or peace process. In other words, a broad set of objectives is devised to garner sufficient support from various political actors in a given context, to generate a legitimate process that the international community can support. What the UN has learnt in places like the DRC or Mali and the AU in Somalia, is that any security gains are short-lived if they are not undertaken in the context of a larger political or peace process.

The ability to generate and deploy peace operations that can use force, for example, to contain violent extremists in Somalia, Mali or Mozambique, is thus not sufficient on its own to manage and resolve conflict.

Peace enforcement can only be meaningfully employed if it serves a political or peace effort. This means that in addition to investing in the generation of peace operations capabilities like the African Standby Force, the AU and regional organisations need to equally invest in their capabilities to use mediators and diplomacy to negotiate cease-fires and peace agreements, and to help the parties to a conflict generate their own political roadmaps that lead away from violent conflict and towards new political systems of coexistence or even co-operation.

We can observe that where the UN or AU has invested in providing security rather than pursuing political solutions, a stabilisation dilemma arises. The more successful peace operations are in achieving stability the less incentive there is for the political elites in power to invest in finding political agreements with those that are challenging their rule. As a result, when these operations come to an end in places like DRC or Somalia the situation is only slightly more stable than it was 20 years ago when these operations were first deployed, because the host governments fail to use the relative stability brought about by the peace operation to address the underlying drivers of the conflict.

The questions for both the AU and UN is thus how to maintain positive pressure and encouragement on host states to ensure that they address the drivers and invest in the political settlements necessary to generate self-sustainable peace.

There seems to be broad agreement emerging that the UN should provide the AU with funding in those cases where it requests the AU to assist it in carrying out its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security

One aspect of the strategic relationship between the United Nations and the African Union that is currently being negotiated is the question of making UN funding available for AU-led peace enforcement operations. UN peacekeeping is designed for consent-based cease-fire or peace agreement implementation operations.

However, some contexts in Africa require peace enforcement where international forces are needed to support host nation forces to contain and contour violent extremist insurgent forces.

This is not something that the UN peacekeeping is designed to do, but the AU and other African institutions have demonstrated the capacity and readiness to do so in places like Somalia, the Sahel and Mozambique. However, these African institutions lack the financial means to deploy and sustain such forces.

The question being currently negotiated is whether the UN should use its assessed contribution system – developed to finance UN peacekeeping operations – to support AU-led peace enforcement operations, in those cases where the UN Security Council authorises the AU to undertake an operation on its behalf.

There seems to be broad agreement emerging that the UN should provide the AU with funding in those cases where it requests the AU to assist it in carrying out its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. However, several details relating to compliance and the costs that the AU should be responsible for is still being negotiated before a framework resolution is likely to be brought before the UN Security Council in December 2023.

However, based on the principle of the primacy of politics discussed earlier, it is important to remain focussed on finding political solutions. Funding only serves to enhance the functioning of the peace operation; it is not a solution in itself. So, it is important to keep the focus on the need to invest in political solutions.

As the stabilisation dilemma introduced earlier reminds us, there is a danger that a well-resourced peace operation may become a placeholder for political solutions, as we have seen in the DRC and Somalia over the last 20 years.

The African Union and United Nations are deepening and strengthening their strategic partnership in a new era of networked multilateralism, including now also in the realm of burden sharing. In the process they are contributing to developing a new global peace and security architecture that is co-evolving with the changing global order.

Cedric de Coning is a senior advisor to ACCORD and research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

This article was first published on ACCORD