UN Peacekeeping Cooperation With Regional Organisations: Time for a Frank Debate

Main Image Credit A Ugandan police officer on patrol in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, serving as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Courtesy of Wikimedia/AMISOM

The 70th anniversary of United Nations peacekeeping efforts is an opportunity to look back to the evolution and the sheer complexity of peacekeeping. To maximise performance, it is also a moment to reflect on how such activities should be better coordinated and planned with regional partners.

With UN peacekeeper fatalities in 2017 at their highest levels since 1994, this is a timely exercise that goes beyond the mere celebration of historic landmarks. In March of this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched a new initiative, the latest in a steady stream of recent reviews and reports on peacekeeping operations. Known as Action for Peacekeeping (A4P), the plan articulates three distinct goals for the UN’s peacekeeping architecture: refocus peacekeeping missions to have more realistic expectations of outcomes; make peacekeeping missions stronger and safer; and mobilise greater support for political solutions and for well-structured, well-equipped and well-trained forces. Under the A4P umbrella, Guterres intends to develop a set of mutually-agreed principles and commitments to create peacekeeping operations ‘fit for the future’. Crucially, one principle will remain unchanged: the UN will continue to reaffirm the basic peacekeeping principles of consent, impartiality and the non-use of force except in cases of self-defence.

Nowhere is this roadmap for the future of peacekeeping more relevant than in the UN’s relationship with regional organisations, particularly the African Union (AU). Since the end of the Cold War, regional organisations have steadily grown in importance to the global peacekeeping architecture. It was the UN’s 1992 Agenda for Peace that first outlined the argument for regionally-led peacekeeping. Regional organisations, it argued, could contribute the essential additional resources needed to ‘lighten the burden’ of the global responsibility for peacekeeping from the shoulders of the Security Council. Secondly, and of equal significance, was the idea that empowering regional agencies would also deepen their ‘sense of participation, consensus and democratization in international affairs’. Whereas the Cold War had made local conflict a zero-sum strategic game liable to attract superpower intervention, after 1989, the UN embraced a new vision in which states ought to take responsibility for their own regional and national security; this is epitomised by the well-worn phrase ‘African solutions to African problems’.

In 2002, the AU seemingly became the partner organisation the UN was waiting for: one both rhetorically committed and institutionally equipped to perform a subsidiary peacekeeping function. The AU’s Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), consisting of an African Standby Force and Continental Early Warning System, amongst other bodies, confirms the organisation’s commitment to the task at hand. The challenge for the UN today is to find an appropriate balance between the necessity and the desire to delegate responsibilities while maintaining control over coercive activities in the maintenance of international peace and security. The AU-UN partnership has been touted by some of its supporters as a model example in this respect.

Others are less convinced and advocate a more critical appraisal of the UN’s relationship with the AU. They argue that the UN fails to adequately reflect on how the AU’s doctrinal and philosophical approach to peacekeeping often derogates from the principles of consent, impartiality and minimum use of force. More widely, focussing primarily on instances of cooperation between the UN and the AU risks overlooking the strategic disagreement between these actors about matters of peace and security.

The UN’s approach to the AU has tended to ignore this inherent strategic discord, instead focussing on capacity building over a clearer division of labour. As Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out in 2006, ‘even in a future situation in which the various roles of partner organisations are clarified, the partnership will not be effective if the vast discrepancy in the capacities of the regional and other organisations around the world is allowed to continue.’

Little has changed since Annan made this statement; indeed, at times, the UN’s enthusiasm towards regional organisations in Africa has overlooked the practicalities of empowering regional arrangements as peacekeeping actors. Critics have long warned that many of the advantages derived from the proximity of a regional organisation – such as rapid deployment and familiarity with the cultural context of a conflict – are often offset by the practical disadvantages of potential partisanship and local strategic rivalries. This is a nuanced conversation that many would rather avoid.

The work of Laurie Nathan of Pretoria University on competitive attempts at conflict mediation in Africa brings to light how the UN, AU and African regional economic communities often have incompatible strategic preferences and competing agendas. Overlooking these strategic differences can have significant consequences for the populations that peacekeepers are sent to support. In particular, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been hailed as a successful example of partnership peacekeeping, yet there is considerable evidence that the mission is neither impartial, nor adheres to the principle of minimum use of force. Arguably, by ‘re-hatting’ Ethiopian and Kenyan troops initially involved in what was a unilateral intervention as AMISOM peacekeepers, the mission also lags behind in respect for the principle of consent.

In part, AMISOM is the perfect example of the paradox of modern peacekeeping. These days, there is often no peace to keep and the mission has been something more akin to peace enforcement than peacekeeping. In a press conference held shortly after his appointment, Secretary-General Guterres recognised this, stating that the AU mission in Somalia was doing ‘peace enforcing’, and the ‘UN has a peacekeeping capacity, but not a peace enforcing capacity’. He also took the time to stress that this was a ‘personal opinion’, albeit one he was ready to ‘reaffirm to the Security Council’. 

The fact that peacekeepers now operate in ongoing conflicts shaped the position of the UN’s recent Cruz Report on improving the security of peacekeepers. The report, authored by Brazilian General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz and released in December last year, concluded that spikes in UN peacekeeper fatalities can be attributed to deficiencies in training, equipment and performance. It also proposed a series of recommendations, including that peacekeepers should be ‘strong and not fear to use force when necessary’. Developments of this kind must be discussed in the context of regional organisations acting as peacekeepers. If the UN truly intends to achieve its A4P objectives, a more realistic appraisal of the role played by the AU in particular, and regional organisations more widely, must be on the agenda. 

At a time when the Security Council has emphasised the ‘primacy of politics’ as the hallmark of the organisation’s approach to conflict resolution, it cannot afford to ignore the pitfalls of adopting an ‘apolitical’ and idealised vision of the relationship between the UN and regional organisations. Until the UN and the AU can be sure that they share a mutual understanding of the concept of peacekeeping, strategic differences will continue to affect the way missions are planned, managed and evaluated.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Alexandria Reid

Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

View profile

Explore our related content