In November 2012, M23 rebels overran the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) army's defences and captured the eastern city of Goma, raising the spectre of a new, large-scale conflict with far-reaching regional implications. The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) stood helplessly by.
In spite of the explanations provided by United Nations (UN) officials, who emphasised that MONUSCO's mandate is to protect civilians and not take part in fighting between warring parties, this situation generated an outcry both within and outside the country. Many failed to understand why the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, deployed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, was not making use of its capabilities to stop the advancing rebels.
Some 2 500 km away, contingents belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were pursuing their offensive against Al-Shabaab, focusing on stabilising Kismayo and opening the Afgoye-Baidoa road. AMISOM's change of fortune began in August 2011, when the African Union (AU) peace support operation unexpectedly pushed Al-Shabaab out of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.
To make sense of these radically different approaches to the use of force in peace operations, it is worth considering how the two organisations' experiences have shaped their interventions. These different approaches should not be seen as an obstacle to cooperation but rather as a call to build greater complementarity in addressing Africa's complex peace and security challenges. This is particularly important in the context of ongoing discussions on how best to consolidate the gains made in northern Mali following the French-led Operation Serval. The question is whether the current security challenges can be addressed through a UN peacekeeping mission or whether the nature of the threat should compel ECOWAS, the AU and the UN to craft a response to the security concerns on the ground. A review of the trajectories of UN and regional arrangements regarding peace operations provides some insight into the international community's quest to secure what has become a sanctuary for transnational criminal activities, religious radicalism and terrorism.
The first UN operations were deployed between armies of conflicting states to oversee the implementation of ceasefire agreements and undertake related tasks. Three guiding principles frame UN interventions: consent of the parties; impartiality; and the non-use of force, except in self-defence and in defence of the mandate. For as long as the UN stood between warring state parties, these principles were relevant. However, with the increasing number of intra-state conflicts involving a variety of actors that deliberately target civilians, such principles are no longer in tune with the reality of many crises.
Steps have been taken at the UN to adjust to the evolving nature of conflict (e.g. the 2000 Brahimi Report and 2008 Capstone Doctrine). However, and as exemplified by the recent developments in the eastern DRC, much remains to be done, and the existence of a 'peace to keep' is still an important condition for UN deployment. Many factors are at play. For one, it is difficult to break with a tradition half a century old. Issues of political will, respect for state sovereignty, suspicions about hidden agendas, definition and interpretation of mandates, as well as the capabilities of troop-contributing countries, are equally important factors.
On the other hand, the AU's doctrine regarding peace operations was heavily influenced by the inability of the AU and the larger international community to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The 2002 AU Constitutive Act contains provisions on the right of the AU to forcefully intervene in a member state in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, or at the request of a government. The operations undertaken in Burundi (2002-2003) and in the Darfur region of Sudan (2004-2007), the ongoing mission in Somalia, and the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord's Resistance Army (RCI-LRA), launched in early 2012, are illustrative of a different approach to peace operations.
Significantly, the AU's operations are called peace support operations and not peacekeeping operations. The AU does not feel constrained by the UN's guiding principles; neither does it wait for peace to prevail or for a political process to be underway to intervene. Instead, as indicated by AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra in June 2010, in situations where there is no peace to keep the AU considers it its duty to intervene to create conditions that will facilitate the emergence of peace. The AU has also proved to be less risk averse and more willing to sustain heavy casualties. AMISOM's casualty rate, which runs into several hundreds, would be unacceptable by UN standards.
Paradoxically, these diverging trajectories should not be seen as an obstacle to cooperation or a cause of concern. In fact, they create opportunities for complementarity between the two organisations. This implies a division of labour, where the AU carries the burden of peace enforcement before transitioning to the UN, which undertakes the long-term stabilisation and post-conflict reconstruction process. Such transitions happened in Burundi, when the UN took over the AU Mission in Burundi (AMIB) through the creation of the UN Operation in Burundi (ONUB), and in Darfur following the establishment of the UN-AU Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), an experiment based on the 'rehatting' of the AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS). The AU also hopes that, at some point, AMISOM will evolve into a UN operation.
As the international community debates the best way to consolidate the military gains in northern Mali, it is worth considering the doctrinal differences between the UN, on the one hand, and the AU and its regional mechanisms for conflict prevention, management and resolution, on the other. The security situation is likely to remain volatile for some time. Given this, it may be advisable, for the time being, to focus on helping a properly manned and well-resourced African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) take up the challenge of securing the north, in conjunction with the Malian and French forces and with the cooperation of neighbouring countries. This would require the mobilisation of significant financial and logistical support, notably from the UN, through either an AMISOM-type support package or another innovative arrangement. Only when conditions are deemed appropriate would a UN peacekeeping operation take over.
Other alternatives would be for the UN to deploy a robust operation whose mandate breaks with its practice to date, or devise another creative arrangement to confront the challenges. Set-ups such as the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire and the French Operation Licorne, the beyond-the-horizon model developed by the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone in 2000 or the contemplated regional intervention brigade within MONUSCO in the DRC, come to mind.
Regardless of the options, the Malian crisis is putting the regional, continental and UN peace and security arrangements through a tough test. The situation highlights once more the need for flexibility and creativity, as well as a closer partnership between the UN and regional organisations to successfully address the changing nature of threats to peace and security in Africa.
While attention is focused on the type of peace operation to put in place in Mali, the international community should not lose sight of the fact that a peace operation alone will not suffice to bring about a lasting solution to the profound security and governance crisis that has led Mali to its current predicament.
Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar