An inside view of African diplomacy in the UN Security Council

t the recent African Union (AU) summit, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that ties between both institutions have grown stronger over the past months.

Last April’s first annual UN-AU conference and the signing of two landmark framework agreements — on peace and security and sustainable development — ushered their relations into a new era. However, by looking at the work of the three rotating African members of the UN Security Council (‘the A3’), we can really gauge the continent’s clout at the UN when it comes to Africa’s peace and security.

But first, a bit of background. The 15-member Council is formed by five permanent veto-wielding members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The remaining 10 members are elected, on an equitable geographic basis, for a two-year term by the 193 countries that make up the UN.

During 2016-2017 the A3 members were Egypt and Senegal, with Ethiopia occupying a Council seat for the period of 2017-18. This January, Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea entered the UN SC as non-permanent members for the period of 2018-2019.

The Council’s African members often uphold AU positions in their dealings in the Council. “To organise the A3 work, every four months one of the three countries takes up a coordination role to make sure that, as far as possible, our positions in the Council are in line with previous agreements reached at AU level,” Biruk M. Demissie, a diplomat at the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the UN, told the Africa Portal.

Equatorial Guinea will certainly embrace this mechanism. In an email exchange with this author, the country’s mission stressed that as a member of the Security Council, Malabo represents not only itself, but Africa as well as the AU, and “will work closely with the continent’s institutions to represent its opinions, positions and interests”.

When African Union members disagree

“In reality there is not an A3, it is kind of a myth. You have a lot of divisions in the AU that transpire in the Council work of the three African members,” noted Alexandra Novosseloff, senior visiting fellow at the International Peace Institute, in a conversation with the Africa Portal.

Western Sahara is a case in point. While Egypt and Senegal favour Morocco’s control of the region, Ethiopia recognises an independent Western Sahara, as does the AU as a whole.

A good example of how this played out in the Council chamber is when, in February last year, the Polisario Front — Western Sahara’s liberation movement — deployed its forces in the southern Al-Guergarat region, in violation of the existing ceasefire agreement. Last April, when discussing the situation ahead of the renewal of the UN peacekeeping mission in the contested territory (MINURSO), Senegal proposed to ‘condemn’ the move, a term that Ethiopia deemed way too strong. The resulting UN Security Council resolution that extended the mandate of MINURSO removed most references to Al-Guergarat.

The A3 also differ on the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Darfur. Seven suspects, including the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, have been indicted for alleged criminal acts including war crimes and genocide in the region. Following a briefing by the ICC prosecutor in June 2016, Senegal, then the only A3 signatory of the treaty that established the ICC, endorsed the ICC’s work in Darfur. As non-signatories of the treaty, Egypt and Ethiopia criticised the court’s work, with Egypt stressing the importance of respecting Khartoum’s sovereignty.

Divisions among the A3 came to the fore again in November 2016. This time, the disagreement was whether or not to lift the arms embargo imposed on Eritrea in 2009 for its support to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. For a fourth year in a row, UN monitors — who were not allowed to visit the country — could not find evidence that Eritrea was supporting Al-Shabaab. Yet the monitors did conclude that the country was actually providing support to armed groups intent on destabilising Ethiopia and Djibouti.

As a result Addis Ababa rejected the lifting of sanctions, and eventually the Security Council as a whole did too. Per contra, Cairo supported the removal of the measures and encouraged the Council to recognise Eritrea’s role in combating international and regional terrorism. Senegal also backed the removal of sanctions, as it believes that Eritrea’s restoration of links with the international community is ‘important’.

Egypt, the resolute diplomat

“In spite of what was going on at home, Egypt did a great job during its term in the Council, in particular as chair of the Working Group on Counter-Terrorism,” Robert Zuber, director of Global Action to Prevent War, told the  Africa Portal. For instance, during its 2016-2017 term in the Council, Egypt led the adoption of 11 counter-terrorism resolutions on issues ranging from judicial cooperation to the links between human trafficking and the financing of terrorism.

Another issue where Egypt scored a number of successes was on the thorny topic of the performance of UN peacekeepers.

Last year provided two illustrative cases. Before the Council renewed the mandate of the Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Egypt brought up a complaint. Cairo — which contributes over 1 000 peacekeepers to the operation — said that the inclusion in MINUSCA’s update reports of cases involving “lack of effective command and control, refusal to obey orders, failure to or respond to attacks on civilians” would unfairly name and shame troop-contributing countries.

In the end, this element was removed from the text. Egypt was equally successful after voicing similar concerns ahead of the renewal of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Egypt was also an active participant in discussions on whether or not to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan. In April 2016, a UN panel of experts identified transfers of military equipment to the government of South Sudan from Egypt — as well as Ukraine — and recommended an arms embargo on Juba. The US wanted the body to follow the panel’s suggestion. Not surprisingly, Egypt was against it, as were Russia and China in what is a long-standing bone of contention in the Security Council.

Peacekeeping: the contributor, the former host and the skeptic

Ethiopia, as the world’s largest contributor of blue helmets, regards peacekeeping as a top priority. It is also one of the pillars of Côte d’Ivoire’s Council work, for good reason.

In June 2017, the peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) closed after 13 years of deployment. The operation will go down in history as a model in terms of crisis management and effective cooperation between the UN and a mission’s host country. “The Council needs a member like Côte d’Ivoire to reflect on how a successful transition from conflict to peace is done,” Zuber pointed out.

“The country wants to show that it is already a full-fledged international player capable of upholding global norms. Yet Côte d’Ivoire still needs to complete various transitions back home, like its security sector reform,” said Novosseloff.

Equatorial Guinea, however, seems skeptical about the effectiveness of blue helmet operations. “The strategic concept that guides Equatorial Guinea’s foreign policy is that external military intervention in a conflict encourages violence rather than diminishes it,” the country’s representatives wrote to the Africa Portal.

Malabo will also use its two-year Council term to highlight “the relation between climate change and armed conflict in Africa”, a concern also shared by Côte d’Ivoire, which pledged to raise awareness on the linkages between global warming and international peace and security during its Security Council term.

These two countries could follow the example set by Senegal. Many of the diplomats and UN watchers consulted for this article highlighted the country’s role in co-leading a Council visit to the Lake Chad-basin during last March. The trip, aimed at stressing the links between conflict and climate change, yielded a resolution encouraging the body to pay more attention to Boko Haram’s atrocities in the region, a matter that had been surprisingly neglected by the Council.

Equatorial Guinea’s participation in the UN’s key decision-making body — which began just days after a failed coup in the country last December — does worry civil society groups. “As the Security Council increasingly mainstreams the promotion of human rights, we hope Equatorial Guinea won’t push back or undermine that,” warned Human Rights Watch.

Over the last two years, the A3 also played a significant role in shaping the body’s efforts to address some of the most protracted problems facing the continent.

For instance, the A3, among other Council members, co-hosted a high-profile meetingin June last year on how food insecurity is linked to conflict, fragility, insecurity and extreme poverty in parts of Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria, among other countries.

Senegal was particularly active on climate change. Dakar chaired in November 2016 a landmark Council debate exploring the relationship between climate change and water scarcity as well as the harmful impact that conflict can have on access to clean water.

And Egypt was one of the five Council members drafting a May 2016 resolution that focused on the protection of health care in armed conflicts.

As we have seen, a temporary seat on the UN Security Council embodies the peak in international clout of most African countries. As Zuber notes, it is an exceptional opportunity for these countries to be a force for good.

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