In July of 2002, the African Union officially replaced its moribund predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, and set a new course for security and development on the continent. With a bolder, more assertive mandate (1) the African Union has already demonstrated its willingness to take a lead role in regional security with peacekeeping missions in Burundi, Darfur and Somalia. The emergence of the AU has come at a most propitious time as the United Nations, with a lackluster record of its own in Africa seems to be favouring a more collaborative approach to peace support operations, working alongside regional partners. In the newly reformulated African Union (AU), the UN seems to have found a reliable regional ally to help share the burden of peacekeeping on the continent. However, as plans for a joint AU-UN force are underway in Darfur, questions abound as to how peacekeeping tasks are being divided in these operations. Based on past experiences, where ill-trained and under-resourced AU troops were deployed to the most volatile areas of the region with little financial or military support from the international community, one wonders whether there has been an equitable distribution of responsibilities between organizations, or whether the UN is allowing its willing counterparts to undertake the perilous duties of peace enforcement without providing the requisite financial and logistical support in return.
The Changing Security Landscape in Africa
The post-Cold war decade was a period of critical learning for the United Nations. In a complex international security landscape, where traditional means of brokering peace was no longer sufficient for ending messy intrastate conflicts, the UN was forced to reevaluate its position as a global peacekeeping institution. Stinging failures in countries like Somalia, Rwanda and Angola were enough to send the blue helmets recoiling from the African continent, reluctant to enter hastily into conflicts where peace needed to be actively enforced, not simply kept. Indeed, even the Brahimi Report- a document written in 2000, and widely regarded as a seminal account of the UN’s progress and challenges leading into the 21st century- conceded:
“Memories of peacekeepers murdered in Mogadishu and Kigali and taken hostage in Sierra Leone help to explain the difficulties Member States are having in convincing their national legislatures and public that they should support the deployment of their troops to United Nations-led operations, particularly in Africa.(1)”
With industrialized countries showing a clear aversion to peacekeeping ventures in Africa, several regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) stepped in to fill the security vacuum on the continent. Most recently, the African Union emerged with a mandate signaling a serious intention to intervene in conflict areas and assume the lead role in brokering peace within the region. With newfound partners in the struggle to mediate the end to devastating intrastate wars in Africa, the United Nations recognized an opportunity to set a new course for the institution, which included a greater reliance on joint peacekeeping initiatives with these regional organizations (2). The UN was not alone in its thinking: regional organizations also embraced the idea of collaborating to address security concerns in the region. When the African Union was created in 2001 for example, its membership explicitly called for a “strong partnership for peace and security” between the AU and the UN in its constitution (3).
The Comparative Advantage of Peacekeeping
Employing the economic theory of comparative advantage to the concept of multilateral peacekeeping missions, Margaret Vogt explains that regional groups possess specific assets that global institutions do not, and vice versa; by working together, each organization can help complement the other to make peacekeeping missions significantly more effective (4). Joint peacekeeping initiatives in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone for example, have revealed that regional organizations – relative to their international counterparts - tend to exhibit strong political will and an ability to act quickly when conflicts break out, however lack some of the experience, resources and status that a body such as the UN enjoys (5). The UN for its part, despite superior financial means and logistical expertise, has often been criticized for deficiencies in political resolve and bureaucratic capability, which has consequently hindered the organization’s capability to act swiftly in situations of intrastate conflict. As a result, both levels of organization carry specific, mutually compatible assets that make collaboration a logical and fitting choice for complex, multifaceted peace operations in the present day.
Applying this corroborative model to AU-UN ventures then, the African Union (relative to the UN) would seem to possess a comparative advantage in its firm willingness and commitment to enter quickly into dangerous theatres of war. In its short five-year history, the AU has already demonstrated a clear readiness to take on greater responsibilities for stability in the region, evidenced through its swift deployment of troops to Burundi, Darfur and Somali- three incredibly volatile areas of conflict. Despite strong political will and logistical proximity to war-zones however, the reality remains that the AU simply does not possess the training, resources or logistical know-how to conduct complex peacekeeping missions without considerable foreign support. The AU’s entire budget in 2007 for example, stands at $133 million, ten percent of which is earmarked for peace support operations (6). Clearly, such a negligible amount cannot possibly account for even the most basic observation missions, let alone highly complex operations in places such as Darfur and Somalia, where expenses easily run into the hundreds of millions each year. Additionally, troop training and readiness have been the direct casualties of inadequate financial and logistical support, effectively hobbling the African Union’s attempts at playing a larger peacekeeping role in the region.
Fortunately, where the African Union is lacking, the United Nations can compensate. With an unmatched pool of experience from which to draw, and access to first-rate military and technical support through its member states, the UN is well-equipped to provide AU troops with the requisite support to fulfill its duties in the field. However, herein lies the rub: if we accept that the UN’s comparative advantage lies in catalyzing necessary resources for peacekeeping missions, while the AU’s rests on rapid deployment into conflict areas, then why are we seeing African forces being deployed into perilous situations without the requisite support following close behind? Is this not a breach of the main principle implied in the comparative advantage rationale of shared responsibility?
A Biased Arrangement?
In all three AU peacekeeping missions – Burundi, Darfur and Somalia– the UN and its partners have shown an astonishing degree of laxity in providing adequate support for its regional counterparts. In Burundi for example, the African Union deployed a peacekeeping mission to a highly volatile conflict zone that the UN itself admittedly refused to enter until 95% of the country had been deemed secure (7). In addition to facing significant delays in deploying two-thirds of the mission due to a lack of resources, AU troops were tasked with trying to demobilize warring factions without an adequate supply of food or shelter for themselves or for the restless soldiers they were meant to monitor (8). In Darfur, the initial AU mission was so hopelessly under-sourced, that troops became heavily dependent on local Sudanese government officials for basic supplies and accommodation (9). African troops continue to be plagued with operational equipment deficiencies in this region, after three years of helplessly observing genocide. In Somalia- where the image of US soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 still remains clearly etched in people’s minds, there is little hope that significant international military support will be provided to reinforce another weak AU force today.
The Perils of Unfulfilled Promises
The records of these three peacekeeping missions reveal a highly inequitable relationship between the African Union and the United Nations. While the AU has readily agreed to deploy troops to help resolve destructive, drawn-out conflicts in the region, the international community has continually evaded its financial and logistical commitments to support these endeavours, thus making “joint” efforts between the AU and UN seem less like a collaboration and more like a lopsided arrangement, with the former doing the bulk of the work. Indeed, despite loud claims of concern and haughty pledges to the AU, efforts by foreign actors to support the organization have been largely superficial, thereby adding to concerns that the AU could be the sole contributor in this multilateral partnership.
Given that African troops have availed themselves to the most dangerous, life-threatening tasks of upholding fragile peace agreements in volatile areas of conflict, it seems rather irresponsible to encourage the deployment of such forces without adequate back-up from the outside world. Indeed, as the abysmally dysfunctional and ill-equipped experiences of these three missions go to show, the failure of the UN and its membership to support the AU’s efforts has been tantamount to sending lambs to their slaughter; an outcome that could set a dangerous precedent for future joint endeavours. If a collaborative approach is being espoused by multilateral organizations like the UN, then it is only fair to ask that they contribute their fair share to these given arrangements, thereby ensuring the most beneficial and equitable outcomes for all involved
While the field of conflict resolution has become infinitely more complex in the 21st century, increased cooperation between the UN and its regional allies has provided a logical means of sharing the burden of responsibility, and exemplified an innovative use of the comparative advantage rationale. However, for this system to work, both sides need to show equal commitment to the process. The African Union has emerged as an institution capable of filling the pernicious void of political will that has been the major thorn in the UN’s side. Therefore, in light of the risks that African troops are willing to take in stepping into perilous conflict zones with little preparation, the UN must be ready to provide a solid foundation of technical, logistical and military support to help ensure the success of these various peacekeeping missions. If there is any hope for piecing together sustainable peace across Africa, the international community must stop shirking its responsibilities, and honor its commitments to provide immediate, effectual support to its allies on the front lines.
(1) African Union, Constitutive Act of the African Union, 11 July 2000. Article 4(h) for example, allows the
AU to intervene in respect to “grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”; article 23(2) provides the mandate for the AU to impose sanctions on member states; and article 30 asserts that unconstitutional changes of government will lead to state suspension from the AU membership.
(2)United Nations, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 21
August 2000. UN Doc: A/55/305-S/2000/809, paragraph 105.
(3) DPKO, “Cooperation Between the United Nations and Regional
Organizations/Arrangements”. Lessons Learned Unit. March 1999, http://pbpu.unlb.org/pbpu/library/Regional%20Organizations%201 1999.pdf The United Nations Charter also devotes an entire chapter (VIII) to working in tandem with regional organizations.
(4) African Union, Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security
Council of the African Union , 9 July 2002, Aricle 7(3)
(5) Margaret Vogt, “Co-operation Between the UN and the OAU in the Management
of African Conflicts”. Institute for Strategic Studies. No. 36 (April 1999).
(6) Francis, David et al. Dangers of Co-Deployment: UN Co-operative
Peacekeeping In Africa. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005.
(7)African Union. Decisions and Declarations of the Assembly of the African Union.
29-30 January 2007. AU Doc: Assembly/AU/Dec.134-164.
(8) United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Burundi, 16 March 2004,
UN Doc: S/2004/210.
(9) “MDRP Briefing Note: Burundi Lessons Learned from the Muyange
Cantonment Experience.” The Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program. 28 November 2003,
(10) Mensah, Seth Appiah. “AU’s Critical Assignment in Darfur”. African Security
Review. Volume 14, No.2 (2005).
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