In Hindsight: The Evolving Role of the Three African Members in the Security Council’s Work on Africa
Among the Security Council’s ten elected members, the three African states—currently Niger, South Africa and Tunisia—constitute a group with some unique features that translate into how these countries work within the Council. They come from the continent whose conflicts have occupied between half to three-quarters of the Council’s time during each of the past 25 years, and that hosts most of the Council’s mandated peace operations. The three states from the continent have also (with the exception of Morocco until 2017) all been members of the same regional organisation, the African Union (AU), and prior to that, its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
The role of the African members of the Council has evolved, from members’ initiatives in their national capacities (in the 1990s, for example, six of the nine visiting missions undertaken by the Council were led by an African member) to more recently taking coordinated positions on several African issues.
Following the launch f the AU in 2002 and the subsequent establishment of its Peace and Security Council (PSC), the PSC became the first international body with which members of the Security Council established regular interactions. Through a joint initiative of South Africa and the UK in 2007, the Council started the practice of holding annual meetings with the PSC, alternating between the two organisations’ respective headquarters in Addis Ababa and New York. After an initial period largely focused on the process and modalities for the meetings themselves, these interactions became increasingly substantive, with the meetings considering conflicts of shared concern to the two bodies.
In January 2002, six months before the AU was launched, Council president Mauritius set the path for developing the Security Council’s new practices in its work on Africa. It organised an open debate on the “Situation in Africa”, with a focus on the UN relationship with the continental organisation. The background note pointed out that although the Council had been busy with conflict situations in Africa, it was not “getting the desired overall results”. The note stressed the need for UN and OAU actions to complement each other. Within days, the Council adopted a presidential statement outlining measures and recommendations that created a framework for the Council’s approach to Africa that remains relevant. In addition to addressing measures aimed at preventing conflict in Africa and calling on the UN system to intensify its cooperation with the African continental organisation, the presidential statement also signalled the plan to establish an ad hoc working group to monitor the implementation of recommendations made during the meeting. As a result, the Council established its Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa (the Ad Hoc Working Group).
The Ad Hoc Working Group deserves a closer look in respect of the role it has played in shaping Council approaches to some African issues, and its potential for developing further positions. Its distinctive feature, among all other Council subsidiary bodies, is that it has always been chaired by an African member. Its activities during a given period largely hinge on the direction from the chair. The Ad Hoc Working Group was very active in its initial years, putting forward several recommendations and initiatives on specific situations (such as Burundi, Guinea-Bissau and the Great Lakes region).
More recently, it has focused on the management of the Security Council’s relationship with the AU PSC, especially the annual consultative meetings. The country-specific focus disappeared for more than a decade, but was revived in 2018, during Ethiopia’s chairmanship, with meetings on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau and the Central African Republic. The Ad Hoc Working Group has the potential to contribute to elaborating and achieving specific policy goals with respect to African countries or regional situations, although it remains to be seen whether a focus on specific situations continues and how it feeds into the work of the Security Council.
As the penholder system took root around 2010, the African members, some of whom had previously served as co-leads on African files, began seeking other ways to play a role on African issues and also to press for the PSC’s policy decisions to inform Security Council decision-making. Following intense diplomacy by African members of the Council, led by South Africa, the Security Council adopted, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, resolution 2046 in May 2012, expressing full support for a PSC decision on the situation between Sudan and South Sudan and incorporating its key elements into the resolution’s operative paragraphs.
Rwanda, which joined the Council in 2013, continued efforts to have the PSC’s concerns and positions taken into account and addressed by the global peace and security body. In this context, it sought working methods that could enhance cohesion among the three African Security Council members.
This process led to a December 2013 brainstorming session during an AU High Level Seminar on Peace and Security, held in Algiers. The participants included the three African members of the Security Council, the chair of the AU Peace and Security Council, representatives of the AU Peace and Security Department, and AU special envoys to different regions of Africa. The outcome of the meeting was the establishment of the group of the three African Council members as a caucus and a means of connection between the Council and the AU PSC on issues of common concern. It may have been the moment when the term “A3” was coined for the three African members.
In the period since, the A3 have jointly been able to influence the Council’s approaches to Africa on several occasions. Their leverage has been particularly significant when they act with an explicit or implicit mandate from the PSC. Unity among the three members on African issues, backed by the continental organisation’s position, has on some occasions been key to persuading permanent members. The A3 have also developed several new practices. In 2019, these actions included:
- joint media stakeout appearances. The three African permanent representatives have acted on a shared sense of urgency to convey a message when the Council as a whole was not in a position to do so (for instance, on 6 June on the decision of the AU to suspend Sudan’s membership and on 20 November on the urgent need for international action in support of the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel);
- a joint statement, in May during an open debate on protection of civilians (delivered by South Africa); and
- a joint visit in the summer to Washington, DC, to lobby policymakers on the issue of UN funding for AU peacekeeping.
Unity on all substantive issues has not always been the case among the A3, given the differences in political priorities among the 55 nations comprising the AU. There have been Africa-related votes in which one or two A3 members abstained, including on issues such as Western Sahara, some African sanctions regimes, or Burundi. Yet the joining of forces on issues where there is consensus, and especially on those where the PSC has articulated a position, is a strategic step.