The bloc of three elected African members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) - the A3 - has grown considerably in stature and diplomatic capacity. This is largely due to the creation of the African Union (AU) in 2002 and the growing partnership between it and the UN.
Although African issues haven't traditionally been contentious in the UNSC, increasing geo-political tensions among council members are starting to spill over onto these files, to the detriment of collective political action. If the A3 bloc wants to ensure its relevance and influence in 2020 and beyond, Africa must ensure that unified positions are a priority.
Africa is numerically significant at the UNSC: in 2018, over 50% of UNSC meetings, 60% of its outcome documents, and 70% of its resolutions with Chapter VII mandates concerned African peace and security issues. African states comprise nearly 28% of the UN's overall membership, providing significant regional political backing to the A3. Niger, South Africa and Tunisia are the A3 members in 2020; either Djibouti or Kenya will replace South Africa from January 2021.
Table 1: African countries on the UN Security Council (2004-2020)
Despite much time having been spent on African issues, many UNSC members have treated them as marginal or less strategic compared to Syria, North Korea or the Middle East peace process. African files (including many UN peacekeeping operations) have therefore often not been very contentious in the council.
However intense negotiations on Libya and the Central African Republic earlier this year show that growing fault lines in the UNSC are spreading to these files. The council's five permanent members - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States - are mired by impasses and conflicting strategic interests, including among once-strong allies. Clashes in other parts of the world are now affecting the UNSC's engagements with Africa.
The role of the A3 at this time is critical to shape UNSC debates, break geo-political deadlocks, and guide the council's collective action. But for this to happen, African unity is essential.
A3 members can show unity through various approaches. They can issue joint statements to the council, define joint negotiating positions for outcome documents, and convene joint public press stakeouts. The role played by the AU permanent observer mission to the UN is particularly important. It can help coordinate A3 and AU engagements, facilitate regular interactions with diplomats and officials in Addis Ababa, and retain AU and UN institutional memory.
A3 members alone have limited influence on the UNSC. But a unified position on African files - especially when informed by AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) decisions - provides legitimacy, credibility and leverage in A3 engagements with other council members, and can influence outcomes. In a sign of such unity, the A3 in 2019 delivered 16 joint statements in the UNSC during both country-specific and thematic debates.
The benefits of collective A3 engagement are clear, but political and institutional dynamics nevertheless threaten to disrupt the bloc. Agreement is frequently tested by broader geo-political conflicts and the interests of powerful council members. Deepening divisions among permanent members in particular strain alliances between the A3.
As a result, negotiations on one file rarely occur in isolation. Instead the A3 has to remain unified across a larger set of negotiations (on both African and non-African files) in order to achieve a particular outcome. A3 members are continuously identifying and negotiating their own interests; other council members can take advantage by either aligning with these different positions or trying to split the A3 bloc.
A3 countries, like other council members, have to navigate national, regional, continental and global interests that are not always complementary. This is especially complicated when governments, regional economic communities and the PSC diverge on a particular issue.
The UNSC and PSC are also not identical institutions: they have different compositions, mandates and working methods, and are informed by different political interests and incentives. Getting the two bodies to align on the same files is an enormous expectation for the A3. The challenge is magnified by the bloc's rotating membership which means there are steep learning curves for each member when joining the UNSC as well as for working within the A3 bloc.
Despite these challenges, the A3 can collectively influence the UNSC. Council members, particularly the other elected members, look to the A3 when a political or security crisis breaks out on the continent. When African institutions take decisive positions, the A3 can use them with confidence to guide the UNSC. For example, in June 2019 the A3 broke a deadlock in the UNSC and shaped the council's press statements on Sudan after the PSC suspended the Sudanese government.
Given that both councils discuss several similar issues, the A3 can help align PSC and UNSC agendas. UN peace operations have fixed reporting cycles, so identifying when country-specific discussions will take place is relatively easy. But merely aligning calendar dates isn't enough if the debates don't build on one another.
South Africa in particular can play an important role in fostering collaboration between the UN and AU since it is now on the UNSC while chairing the AU. As chair, South Africa has stronger diplomatic weight to advocate for AU positions in the UNSC.
South Africa will probably focus on the AU's Silencing the Guns initiative, especially in light of the UNSC resolution on the same issue adopted in February 2019. South Africa will host an extraordinary AU summit on Silencing the Guns in May 2020, which should shape the A3's engagement in the UNSC.
With its ambitious mandate and the challenging geo-political dynamics that must be navigated, the A3's evolution into a coherent political bloc within the UNSC is laudable. African states must now take the next step to consolidate their influence. That requires remaining unified, principled and closely linked to Addis Ababa. With challenging times ahead for the UNSC, the A3's leadership on Africa-related decisions is key for conflict prevention and crisis management.
Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, ISS and Daniel Forti, Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute (IPI)
This article is published as part of a joint project between IPI and ISS on the UN-AU partnership in peace and security. A version of this article is also published on IPI's Global Observatory. This ISS Today is published with funding from UK Aid and the government of Norway as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP).