What's In Blue

Posted Thu 23 May 2024

West Africa and the Sahel: Presidential Statement

Tomorrow morning (24 May), the Security Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel. This will be the Council’s first presidential statement on the region since August 2021, as negotiations on a text, which had been customarily adopted after the Council’s bi-annual meetings on the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), stalled several times for more than two years over language on the link between climate change and security.

This latest round of negotiations on the draft presidential statement was spearheaded by the co-penholders on UNOWAS, Sierra Leone and Switzerland, who informed Council members at the 11 January briefing and consultations on UNOWAS that they intended to resume discussions on the text. The co-penholders convened a first reading of the draft statement among Council experts on 21 February. After a revised text was circulated in early March, Council experts held a second reading on 8 March. Four subsequent iterations of the text were put under silence. China and Russia broke the first silence procedure on 8 April. A second silence procedure, until 17 April, was suspended in favour of continuing bilateral discussions. The co-penholders placed another version of the draft under silence on 10 May. After three extensions of this silence procedure, Russia broke silence on 14 May, proposing two edits unrelated to the climate paragraph. This appeared to prompt France to also request a change to the draft statement. Yesterday (22 May), the penholders placed the draft under silence procedure, which it passed this morning (23 May).

The main issue that has impeded agreement on the draft presidential statement for almost two and a half years has been a paragraph on the impact of climate change in the region. The Council’s August 2021 presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel recognised the “adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters, including through drought, desertification, and land degradation, as well as their impacts on food security, among other factors, on the security and stability of West Africa and the Sahel region”. Presidential statements on UNOWAS since January 2018 referred to the effects of climate change on the stability of the region, but the August 2021 text was the first to also mention “security”.

In 2022, however, negotiations on a follow-up presidential statement stalled when China and Russia, together with then-elected members India and Brazil, objected to referring to climate change’s effects on security in the region, and they sought to strike the word “security” from the text. These countries have long argued that there is no direct relationship between climate change and security and have been wary of the Council becoming involved in non-traditional security issues that can be addressed in other intergovernmental bodies. The backtracking from the 2021 agreed language followed Russia’s veto, India’s vote against, and China’s abstention on a thematic resolution on climate, peace and security in December 2021, which may have contributed to their harder stance against the climate-security language in the UNOWAS presidential statement.

The climate paragraph remained the most difficult issue during the latest negotiations. China and Russia still opposed including the term “security”. Meanwhile, the penholders, the other African members Algeria and Mozambique—who along with Sierra Leone and Guyana negotiated as a block known as the “A3 plus one”—and other Western countries were against changing the agreed language from the August 2021 presidential statement. To address China and Russia’s concerns, the penholders added a sentence acknowledging that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement are the primary intergovernmental forums for negotiating the global response to climate change—this language had also been proposed to assuage these countries’ concerns during the stalled negotiations in 2022 and 2023. China also advocated for calling on the international community, in particular developed countries, to increase support—such as financing, technology transfers, and capacity-building—to help the region address climate change. It seems that the P3 members (France, the UK, and the US), in particular, were uncomfortable with this proposal.

The text placed under silence procedure on 10 May reflected what appeared to be the penholders’ best effort at compromise between the opposing positions. This language, which now comprises the agreed paragraph in the draft presidential statement, recognises “the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters, including through floods, drought, desertification, and land degradation, as well as their exacerbating effects on food security and on other humanitarian, social and economic factors challenges, which impact the security and stability of West Africa and the Sahel region”. It maintains the reference to security, although it seems to suggest a less direct correlation with climate change compared to the August 2021 statement.

Other new elements in the climate paragraph include encouraging UNOWAS’ continued advocacy for efforts “to scale up international action and support” through humanitarian and development action, voluntary transfer and deployment of technology, resource mobilisation and capacity-building, in line with existing commitments to enhance the adaptive capacity of countries from the region and to reduce their vulnerability to climate change. The settled language was a compromise between China’s proposal and that of the P3. The draft presidential statement also stresses “the particular relevance” of the elements in the paragraph on climate change to the situation in West Africa and the Sahel, which reflected China and Russia’s desire to not have the text become a precedent for other country situations or to create a stand-alone Council agenda item on climate, peace and security.

Issues related to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and political transitions in the region also required compromise. Russia appeared to try to weaken language on ECOWAS and the transitions. This reflected Russia’s increased cooperation with the military juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, which in January withdrew from ECOWAS, as the regional body has sought to pressure authorities to hold elections to restore constitutional order following coups d’état in the three countries and in Guinea. For Sierra Leone, as well as other Council members, it was important to reflect ECOWAS’ positions in response to the crises.

The agreed draft presidential statement expresses serious concern at the unconstitutional changes of governments and attempted coups d’état. It underscores the importance of the timely, nationally owned transition processes and restoration of constitutional order in the concerned regional countries. It also includes text underlining the importance of mitigating shrinking civil and political space, which was proposed by Malta and Slovenia. But stronger language on the transitions, which some members preferred, was not possible, while changes to the text over the course of the negotiations included replacing language “welcom[ing]” the outcomes of recent ECOWAS summits and “commend[ing]” its mediation efforts, with “tak[ing] note”.

The draft presidential statement also includes a paragraph on the withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which was completed at the end of December 2023. Proposed by France, although apparently questioned by Russia, the text acknowledges the closing of MINUSMA and emphasises the need for continued cooperation with the UN during the liquidation process, in accordance with resolution 2690 of 30 June 2023 that ended MINUSMA’s mandate.

In addition to having the Council’s first consensus document in nearly three years on developments in the region, members were keen to reach an agreement on the text to signal Council support for Special Representative Leonardo Santos Simão, who became the head of UNOWAS in May 2023. The agreed text welcomes Simão’s appointment and calls on all relevant stakeholders to engage constructively and fully with him. It also expresses the importance of UNOWAS’ good offices roles to prevent conflict, and, as appropriate, election- and transition-related tensions.

Several references to youth, peace and security (YPS) have been added to the text, an issue which was not covered in the August 2021 presidential statement. Recognising the link between youth and the region’s conflict dynamics, such as migration and recruitment into terrorist groups, was important for Sierra Leone. As occurs frequently in Council negotiations, China and Russia pushed to streamline references to cross-cutting issues—such as women, peace and security (WPS), children, and human rights—which they apparently argued were repetitive. The text contains a new paragraph on children that calls on all parties to armed conflict to end and prevent violations against children and to safeguard their right to education. Regarding responses to security threats in the region, the draft statement highlights the importance of addressing the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism and for states to ensure that any counter-terrorism measures comply with all their obligations under international law.

In breaking silence on 14 May, Russia proposed that the text express great concern at the violent actions of non-state actors, in particular “illegal” armed groups and individuals and groups affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Qaeda. It also requested rephrasing language on “food and water insecurity” as “food insecurity and water scarcity”. Members accepted Russia’s proposal about food insecurity and water scarcity, although the co-penholders then listed other water-related threats that are broader than water scarcity, such as floods and water quality. Several members were uncomfortable, however, with Russia’s request to condition the reference to armed groups with “illegal”—which they appeared to view as legitimising the presence of the former Russian private entity Wagner Group, now known as Africa Corps. The solution was to remove the reference to armed groups altogether so that the agreed text now expresses great concern at the violent actions of non-State actors, including individuals and entities associated with ISIL and Al-Qaeda.

Reaching a final agreement on the text became further complicated as France requested reinserting language that was removed from the 10 May draft that would have expressed serious concern about the “deferral of transition processes”. The compromise that the penholders eventually achieved between France and Russia was to add language on transitions to the sentence that “underscores the importance of the timely, nationally owned transition processes and restoration of constitutional order” and by tweaking the text to better indicate the concerned countries.

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