Author: Priyal Singh and Daniel Forti
Affiliated organization: Institute for security studies
Site of publication: International Peace Institute
Type of publication: Policy brief
Date of publication: September 2020
Effective multilateral solutions to African peace and security challenges depend on a strong United Nations (UN)-African Union (AU) partnership, given that neither organisation can address the magnitude or complexities of such challenges if it works in isolation.
UN and AU cooperation over peacekeeping and peace support operations has received significant political attention and other shared priorities, such as mediation and crisis management, have grown increasingly important in recent years.
Nonetheless, there are clear opportunities to improve coordination and build a more impactful partnership. Effective peacebuilding requires coherent and shared political strategies among a wide range of partners that support complex national processes. A stronger UNAU partnership could thus help frame these shared challenges and, in turn, generate the political and operational solutions required to address common problems. Recent shifts towards more flexible, nimble and context-tailored interventions are encouraging, and point to opportunities for greater joint analysis and coordinated peacebuilding engagements.
Finding common ground
The peacebuilding architectures of the UN and the AU emerged between 2005 and 2006 out of a common understanding of the imperative to sustain fragile peace efforts and support countries moving away from sustained conflict.
The UN’s peacebuilding architecture is currently underpinned by the Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace approach, which was articulated in the 2015 Peacebuilding Architecture review and endorsed through ‘twin’ resolutions by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council in 2016.
The AU’s peacebuilding architecture is anchored in its post-conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD) framework, which was endorsed by the union’s member states in 2006. The policy was designed to assist countries emerging from conflict to consolidate peace, prevent conflict relapses, address the root causes of conflict and promote socio-economic development.
Different peacebuilding terminology also exacerbates efforts to find common ground. Although the organisations share broad goals, terminology is important as it helps define when and where member states believe peacebuilding interventions should take place and how they should be implemented
Policy documents from both organisations explicitly acknowledge the importance of the UN-AU partnership to peacebuilding. The 2017 Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security lists one of its four essential themes as ‘Addressing Root Causes’ in the context of sustainable peace and continued development. It also calls for the two organisations to: integrate peacebuilding strategies into all areas of cooperation, strengthen coordination and cooperation on peacebuilding and work in support of the full implementation of the AU PCRD Framework.
These policy frameworks and institutional structures have further informed the evolution of each organisation’s approach to peacebuilding and how they articulate their comparative strengths. The UN’s global membership, for example, bolsters the potential role of and support for the PBC with PBF investments, backed by widespread UN in-country operations – which orient much of the UN’s programming work.
The UN’s sustaining-peace agenda and the AU PCRD policy framework reflect varying degrees of coherence and can therefore be compared more directly. Both agendas are rooted in common principles relating to inclusivity, national ownership, sustainability and coherence. Moreover, both frameworks consider peacebuilding as a fundamentally political exercise underpinned by common goals focused on addressing the root causes of conflict, reducing the potential for violence and consolidating peace through sustainable development.
However, some differences in their conceptual approaches do stand in the way of a closer UN-AU partnership – and their policies on peacebuilding are not universally understood or accepted by their respective member states.
Different peacebuilding terminology also exacerbates efforts to find common ground. Although the organisations share broad goals, terminology is important as it helps define when and where member states believe peacebuilding interventions should take place and how they should be implemented. This leads to confusion and undermines the potential to explore new areas of collaboration. As one independent expert explained: it’s definitely an issue of language and terminology, this can be an endless debate. You often have to explain to [UN officials] that PCRD is the AU’s peacebuilding arm, much like similar efforts to try and bring the UN’s sustaining-peace language into [the AU].
Finally, disparities in operational capacity affect the way each organisation perceives the other’s potential value to peacebuilding efforts. Several UN officials indicated that they do not perceive the AU as having a comparative advantage in peacebuilding because the organisation does not have significant in-country programming operations.
Opportunities to strengthen the partnership
There is ample scope for more meaningful cooperation between the two organisations, which could be strengthened by partnership structures that include the Joint Task Force, annual ‘desk-to-desk’ meetings, the Annual Conference and standing engagements between the UNSC, the AU PSC and the UNPBC.
Both the UN and the AU readily acknowledge that peacebuilding and PCRD are, first and foremost, political exercises. Accordingly, aligned and coherent political strategies are necessary to provide a political backstop for stability as national actors articulate and advance their own peacebuilding efforts. Placing politics at the centre of a more partnership oriented approach requires the two organisations to assess more directly the complementarity and value of their respective political roles in specific country or regional settings. A more politically focused approach to cooperation can be broadly understood across four key areas.
Firstly, there should be a shared appreciation of peacebuilding challenges and priorities in country or regional settings. While the peacebuilding agendas of member states in these multilateral bodies may have become more closely aligned, there are gaps in the way overarching political priorities are identified and translated at the operational level.
Secondly, legitimacy must be viewed as a key entry point for joint UN-AU political engagement in country settings. Officials from the AU and the UN, member states and independent experts alike emphasised that the AU’s comparative legitimacy as an African institution allows it to engage with the necessary degree of credibility in conflict-affected states on the continent.
Firstly, there should be a shared appreciation of peacebuilding challenges and priorities in country or regional settings. While the peacebuilding agendas of member states in these multilateral bodies may have become more closely aligned, there are gaps in the way overarching political priorities are identified and translated at the operational level
Thirdly, inclusivity and national ownership should be prioritised as foundational principles for more aligned and coherent UN-AU political strategies for peacebuilding. The AU’s mandate, comparative legitimacy and frequent interactions with the RECs enable it to engage member state governments and political parties more readily.
Lastly, growing acknowledgment of the intra-regional and cross-border dimensions of peacebuilding offers valuable opportunities for the UN and AU to align their political strategies. The UNPBC and the PBF are increasingly moving towards the approach of the AU’s PCRD framework, which prioritises regional engagement.
Member state bodies as drivers
Member state cooperation over peacebuilding is necessary to ensure common strategies between the two organisations. While cooperation between the UNSC and the AU PSC is often seen as the partnership’s political apex, the UNPBC is a more natural counterpart to the AU PSC for discussing peacebuilding-specific priorities and supporting national stakeholders. How these bodies navigate their respective internal dynamics, and how they relate to one another, has an impact on the trajectory of collective peacebuilding efforts.
Given the increasing role and influence of the A3 in driving common continental positions (often, but not always, stemming from the AU PSC), closer cooperation among African members on the UNPBC could similarly amplify African interests within the body. However, this may prove challenging given that the UNPBC’s more complex membership pool does not lend itself as easily to the formation of a coherent political identity or common agenda.
Certain UN officials who have supported these discussions tempered this optimism, however, by pointing to the various obstacles that inhibit them from concrete action. As there are more than twice as many UN PBC members as UNSC members it becomes logistically difficult (if not impossible) for the entire body to travel for consultations in Addis Ababa, thus privileging meetings that take place in New York.
The two bodies have implemented a few of the suggestions made during the 2018 meeting, which notably include: the formalisation of the annual consultation, that the UN PBC should focus more regional issues and that the AU has requested UN support for the AU Centre for PCRD. However, the items raised in 2018 did not feature prominently in the 2019 AU PSC press statement following the annual PBC interaction, suggesting that cooperation is still largely limited to rhetoric.
Despite the overlap of UN and AU policy frameworks, the organisations put their peacebuilding agendas into practice in very different ways, both in their headquarters and in in-country settings. Operational and working-level interactions between stakeholders of the two bodies have, to date, been underwhelming, in spite of frequent calls for greater coordination.
One of these relates to the imbalance between the two organisations in relation to operational capacity at both headquarters level and in different country settings. As a result, the UN has an unintended and implicit focus on peacebuilding programming as the core objective of its work. These efforts are largely driven by country-level programmes, which often do not include frequent collaboration with AU stakeholders.
These organs and agencies are, however, similarly affected by the AU’s current structural reform process and will likely go through a process of review of their mandates and functions in the coming year. In addition, the newly established AUCPCRD, hosted by Egypt, could potentially bolster cooperation over peacebuilding between the two organisations, as detailed in the text box.
Sustainable financing for multilateral interventions is critical to the long-term trajectory of the UN-AU peacebuilding partnership. The June 2020 virtual PBC consultation about the 2020 PBA review contextualised the problem, stating that: adequate, predictable and sustained financing of peacebuilding efforts is the cornerstone of effective responses to assist countries to build and sustain peace over time. However, this widely acknowledged and understood requirement of peacebuilding continues to be an unmet challenge
PBF funding has served as one tool for closer UN-AU collaboration. For example, in an effort to strengthen participation in peacebuilding efforts the PBF has provided funding for the AU-led African Initiative in the Central African Republic to ensure the inclusion of young people and women in an initiative in support of the peace agreement. It provided similar support for the Juba Peace Process in Sudan.
In comparison to the AU, the UN is able to pool and direct funds expeditiously to on-the-ground interventions and programming (generally within 10 months).68 PBF funding enabling the AU to deploy human rights observers to Burundi in 2016–2017 was the first instance of direct funding.
The ongoing functioning of the AU Peace Fund is expected to showcase AU member states’ commitment to predictable and sustainable financing and is anticipated to lead to a total endowment of US$400 million by 2021.74 As at February 2020 the AU Peace Fund had mobilised approximately US$176 million. The revived fund has focused renewed attention on how AU member states, through their direct contributions, can pool their resources and direct them towards targeted interventions and peacebuilding-related programming.
Recent AU decisions in relation to the Peace Fund deliberately excluded PCRD-related funding: the fund’s three ‘windows’ are directed at mediation and preventive diplomacy, institutional capacity and peace support operations.
A capacitated and active AU Peace Fund could represent a key development in helping the AU sustain whatever limited peacebuilding programming it believes to be necessary. Throughout this process AU stakeholders would do well to recognise some of the key lessons from and challenges with prior funding models such as the African Solidarity Initiative (ASI), which was arguably one of the most ambitious efforts to pool the resources and expertise of African member states in support of the peacebuilding programming.
Capitalising on emergent peacebuilding approaches
Recent UN and AU peacebuilding initiatives have sought out new practices amid evolving norms, rapidly changing contexts in Africa and persistent resource constraints. These practices cut across strategic and operational issues. And while some of the adaptations are directly aimed at promoting closer cooperation between the UN and the AU on peacebuilding issues others represent underexplored new avenues for a more coherent partnership
While these engagements take place against the backdrop of the RECs being specifically recognised as regional focal points for PCRD within the AU’s PCRD Framework, a more direct, robust and institutionalised engagement by the AU is noticeably absent.
This is an important element of the peacebuilding debate, especially since it is envisioned that RECs will implement the AU PCRD framework. In particular instances where a REC has a strong country-specific presence, direct cooperation with UN peacebuilding actors makes sense. However, in many contemporary peacebuilding instances the AU is well positioned to provide a political umbrella that can help backstop ongoing processes and support efforts to establish broader political stability.
Emerging peacebuilding practices also offer the organisations a number of opportunities to complement one another more effectively. Recent AU PCRD deployments to the Gambia and the Lake Chad Basin region have demonstrated a noticeable shift in the AU’s approaches.
These initiatives operate alongside a range of bilateral and UN support measures that reinforce the AU’s substantive priorities, including through the PBC. Such approaches demonstrate how the AU can promote African-led technical expertise alongside the legitimacy that it carries as part of its continental mandate, and can be complemented by the UN’s programmatic and financial channels.
Towards a more effective peacebuilding partnership
Limited progress in the UN-AU peacebuilding partnership is the product of many factors. Differences in the policy frameworks of the organisations, especially in terms of when and where member states believe peacebuilding interventions should take place, create confusion and undermine the potential to explore new areas of collaboration. Although member states commit rhetorically to a closer peacebuilding partnership, there are few tangible and action-oriented outcomes from the UN PBC’s and AU PSC’s annual dialogue.
Continental support for the UN’s sustaining peace approach and meaningful input from African member states into the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture review is helping to forge a shared set of priorities and thematic interests. The UNPBC and AU PSC’s commitments to regularise their meetings and use their platforms for more flexible and diverse discussions further signal a growing alignment of interests and political will among member states.
A stronger peacebuilding partnership, therefore, requires the UN, the AU and their member states to reinforce their political commitment to peacebuilding-focused collaboration as well as strengthening operational engagements at headquarters and country levels. In addition, a stronger partnership would also entail both organisations arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the bounds and limits of each other’s roles within particular peacebuilding contexts.
Limited progress in the UN-AU peacebuilding partnership is the product of many factors. Differences in the policy frameworks of the organisations, especially in terms of when and where member states believe peacebuilding interventions should take place, create confusion and undermine the potential to explore new areas of collaboration
Lastly, the UN and AU should explore critically ways to support one another in different countries, alongside sub-regional actors. The AU Technical Support Mission to the Gambia shows how the AU could more easily mobilise and sustain context-specific interventions with comparatively light footprints.
The AU PSC and the AU Commission should also evaluate the efficacy of this co-deployment model for its potential applicability to and feasibility in other peacebuilding situations. The effectiveness of this model should also be assessed in greater technical detail at a headquarters level among stakeholders across the UN Secretariat.
- UN and AU member states should consider building consensus about shared peacebuilding concerns, including through the AU PSC, UNSC and UNPBC. They should also consider better leveraging legitimacy, complementarity and comparative advantages, including in specific country settings where the organisations maintain different mandates and footprints.
- In order to enhance greater inter-institutional coherence in peacebuilding efforts, the scheduled annual engagements between UN DPPA, UN DPO and the AU PSD should prioritise the inclusion and greater engagement of officials from the UN PBSO, DCO and UNDP, alongside the newly established AUCPCRD, as well as relevant UNCT and AU Liaison Office personnel.
- AU PSC member-state representatives should aim to institutionalise a better working relationship with the African Peacebuilding Caucus of the UN’s Africa Group. Many lessons could be drawn from the development of the AU PSC’s engagements with the three African member states on the UNSC (the A3), and how this has contributed to a more coherent and collective African political identity across these critical multilateral bodies.
- The AU PSC and UNPBC should aim to strengthen implementation of the recommendations from the 2018 annual meeting on improved working methods. This could practically entail the AU PSC committee of experts meeting with the UNPBC in advance of annual meetings in a similar way to the UNSC-AU PSC
- The UN PBSO and the UN Development Coordination Office should explore opportunities to conduct more effective joint analysis and planning exercises for peacebuilding activities with AU and REC counterparts
- The AU PCRD Interdepartmental Task Force should strive to build working relationships with the UN DCO and the UN’s regional Peace and Development Advisors (PDAs) to share analysis and offer targeted expertise.
Peacebuilding on the African continent, from both a UN and AU perspective, is approaching a critical juncture. Continued gaps in inclusive governance, socio-economic development and social cohesion perpetuate fragility in many countries and regions. In spite of this, investment in peacebuilding interventions and programming aimed at addressing root causes and structural drivers of conflict continue to be significantly outpaced by military expenditures, as well as a reliance on costly peacekeeping and peace support operations.
The UN’s 2020 Peacebuilding Architecture review and the ongoing AU structural reform process thus opens a vital window of opportunity for all concerned multilateral stakeholders to reflect on why the strategic partnership on peace and security matters to peacebuilding.
It is clear that neither organisation can single-handedly drive effective peacebuilding efforts, given the complexity of contemporary conflict dynamics and the multitude of diverse and disparate local, regional and international political interests and actors that need to be taken into account in any given peacebuilding strategy.
A structured and predictable UN-AU peacebuilding partnership grounded in shared values, aligned political objectives and a clear understanding of the partners’ complementarity and limitations is thus vital in responding to ongoing and emergent peace and security challenges.
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