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TematicheAfrica SubsaharianaTogether we stand, divided we fall: the AU-UN partnership...

Together we stand, divided we fall: the AU-UN partnership for peace and security between structural problems and common interests


The Joint UN-AU Framework for an Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security, signed in 2017, has marked another step in the incremental cooperation between the two organizations in terms of peace and security. Even though the two organizations share noble goals, their cooperation is based on a “realpolitik approach”, since the United Nations (UN) holds the global mandate for peace and security, but it is experiencing growing anti-UN sentiments, mostly in Africa. In this context, despite more than 70% of the UN Security Council (UNSC) agenda being related to Africa (Shiferaw 2021), no African country has the right to a permanent seat in the UNSC. The African Union (AU) could therefore be the regional platform to address complex conflicts that are tearing some African countries, drawing on its more flexible mandate and its legitimacy to operate in the region, but it lacks the resources and funds that only the UN has.

Common interests to address the same problems

When, in 1963, the then-independent African countries established the Organization for African Unity (OAU), it became immediately clear that the new organization could not have been a leader in pursuing peace in the African continent. Its mandate lay in supporting African countries in their struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and apartheid. However, at the end of the century, alongside increasingly complex challenges, it became clear that the OAU didn’t have the adequate tools to prevent conflicts and atrocities (in 1994 the Rwandan genocide shocked the world), paving the way for a renewal of the organization. 

On this path, the African Union (AU) was established as an evolution of the OAU in 2002. The new organization has been defined with the purpose to intervene in case of grave human rights violations, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. To do so, the AU has been equipped with the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). 

On the other side, since the end of the Cold War, the UN was becoming increasingly involved in different crises around the globe. The then UN Peacekeeping Department (now Department of Peace Operations, DPO), was trudging between several complex challenges within the numerous intrastate wars. Dealing with these new challenges needed a rethinking of the operations, trying to enable peacekeeping to keep pace. As a consequence, the number of funds needed for a single operation increased dramatically. In the same period, the spread of anti-UN sentiments also started becoming a problem, mostly due to failures in Somalia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica. These dynamics convinced the UN to strengthen partnerships with regional organisations in terms of peace and security.

The AU-UN partnership: between noble goals and realpolitik 

As emerged above, both the AU and the UN have had interested in strengthening their partnership over the years. While the AU has the legitimacy to intervene in Africa, representing itself as an “African solution to African problems” (Shiferaw 2021), and can rely on a more flexible mandate, the UN holds the global mandate for peace and security, positioning itself in a higher legal-hierarchical position, but it has started suffering from lack of legitimacy. But the UN has also huge know-how and capabilities, including funds, that the AU desperately needs in order to deploy effective operations. 

Both actors share a complex responsibility and it seems that they both need each other. However, the AU claims its leadership when it comes to Africa, but it has no tools to make its voice heard at the UNSC, which, according to Article VII of the Charter of the UN, is in charge of global peace and security. The request for a UNSC reform is a catchphrase but it has always been set aside due to power relations within the Council itself. Africa tries to use its three non-permanent States (the A3) within the UNSC to give African perspectives regarding the continent’s agenda, but the P-5 (Permanent 5) have no incentives in reforming the current situation. These power relations, in a realpolitik dynamic between UN Member States, make effective cooperation more difficult for both sides. As Shiferaw (2021) noted, this situation has also been worsened by some controversial incidents. The intervention in Libya in 2011, in fact, brought to light these power relations, with the UNSC that voted for the no-fly zone against the AU willingness to opt for negotiations (even though the A-3 voted the resolution 1973). 

Besides these power dynamics, it is clear that both the UN and the AU have common interests and need each other to achieve the noble goal of peace and security in Africa. As underlined above, the AU has a flexible mandate, that allows the African organization to deploy troops where the UN, for political and legal reasons, cannot. In this case, an AU PSO (Peace Support Operation) could best meet the need of a specific crisis. In addition, as highlighted before, the AU could be perceived as an African solution and, as a consequence, it could not suffer from anti-mission sentiments such as those the UN is facing, for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

A successful partnership with structural problems 

An interesting example of the successful partnership between the two organizations was the first UN-AU joint mission: the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), that enjoys both resources and funds from the UN and legitimacy and efficiency from the AU. In the case of Darfur, the two organizations have relied on each other by bridging their respective gaps. However, one of the major issues that persists is related to funding. The AU, through the A-3, sought to secure UN funding for its operations, relying on the fact that the UNSC has the legal mandate to maintain peace and security, but implying that the AU should have leadership in Africa, while still acting alongside the UN. This proposal has never actually seen the light.

The legal and geopolitical struggle between the AU representatives in the UNSC and the other UNSC Member States is likely to continue, but the realpolitik dynamics between the two organisations should not impede what can be an efficient cooperation, as the example of UNAMID demonstrated. While the AU claims autonomy but seeks funding, the UN tries to find a compromise to continue implementing its mandate, while taking advantage of a regional organization that seems to have greater legitimacy and a more flexible legal mandate. 


As underlined, while the AU-UN partnership is based on bridging each other gaps to achieve the noble goal of peace and security, realpolitik within the two organizations risked undermining the long-term outcomes. However, despite these structural issues, the UN strong support for the recently launched African Union Compliance and Accountability Framework (AUCF) has shown the willingness of both sides to cooperate in addressing the increasingly complex challenges that are affecting the continent. As an example of cross-organizational cooperation, UNAMID has demonstrated a significant improvement in the efficiency and legitimacy of a peace operation and the overcome of the realpolitik dynamics should pave the way for a renewal of the architecture of peace operations. 

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