During its previous two terms on the UN Security Council, South Africa played a leading role in establishing better working relations between the UN and the African Union (AU). Improved cooperation between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council is often attributed to South Africa's considerable diplomatic work, and is regarded as one of the country's greatest achievements on the UN Security Council.
During its current 2019-20 term, this successful legacy project will no doubt be prioritised by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. But the country faces significant hurdles as champion of the UN-AU partnership on peace and security.
Chief among these are the complex political dynamics between council members. South Africa's toughest task will be resolving the bitter aftermath of a failed draft resolution from December 2018, led by Ethiopia. The resolution tried to secure greater sustainability and predictability of funding for AU-led peace support operations sponsored through UN-assessed contributions.
Research by the Institute for Security Studies in New York last month found that the issue has markedly strained relations between the council's African member states, who rigorously lobbied for the resolution, and the United States, who chiefly opposed it. The implications are a growing scepticism of the UN multilateral system and the global body's commitment to supporting stability in Africa.
The financing issue is likely to remain deadlocked for the foreseeable future, but South Africa should nevertheless continue its efforts to entrench the UN-AU partnership. Policymakers and diplomats will need to tactfully navigate council dynamics and establish other priority areas.
With its upcoming dual roles in 2020 as AU chair and UN Security Council member, South Africa is well positioned to be an effective global actor. Ironically, the best way forward for the country may well be found by looking back.
During its previous terms on the council, South Africa championed the adoption of the landmark resolutions 1809 (2008) and 2033 (2012) on strengthening cooperation between the UN and regional organisations. These efforts are reflected in the joint 2017 UN-AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security, which emphasised a more systematic and results-oriented series of engagements.
There has been significant progress in carrying out the agreement, but much more needs to be done. Particular aspects must be strengthened, such as joint conflict analyses and harmonising the two organisations' conflict prevention and peacebuilding doctrines and policies. By focusing on implementation of the 2017 framework agreement, especially at a working (desk-to-desk) level, South Africa could help show tangible outcomes in a relatively short period.
Paul Williams and Arthur Boutellis point out a range of other operational challenges facing the AU-UN partnership, such as creating inflexible structures that risk becoming redundant. South African diplomats would do well to bring these issues onto the UN Security Council's agenda - possibly during the country's council presidency month in October this year.
South Africa must also use its position as chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa to source briefings from AU officials and relevant thematic experts. As chair, South Africa plays a vital role in consolidating positions with Côte d'Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea, while reflecting broader African positions stemming from Addis Ababa. Consensus among African council members is useful in gaining support from other elected council members, especially on sticking points like the financing question.
Directly supporting the expanded role of the UN Office to the AU, and the AU's Permanent Observer Mission to the UN, is a further area in which South Africa could help strengthen the UN-AU partnership. The ongoing process of 'silencing the guns by 2020' is another project that will require a more coherent and robust collaboration between the UN and the AU - one that is responsive at both political and working levels.
The question of financing peace support operations rightly requires prioritisation, but a persistent deadlock on the issue need not bar progress in other areas of the UN-AU partnership. South Africa must be innovative and build on the political capital it gained during its previous terms on the UN Security Council.
Priyal Singh, Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria
This article was funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government's official policies.