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The Foundation of the African Union and the African Peace and Security Architecture

The African Union (AU) is a unique and often misunderstood organization. The frequent comparisons to the EU inevitably make the African organization seem ineffective, but these comparisons aren’t fair. Vastly different circumstances led to the creation of these very different regional organizations, and the AU has tallied some notable successes in bringing sustainable peace to Africa, even if significant challenges remain.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres continues to prioritize deepening partnership with the African Union on peace and security issues, a focus that highlights the strengths and unique trajectory of the AU in this area. Discussing the background to and the normative basis for current AU peace and security policy is vital to understanding contemporary African conflicts.

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

To the north, the European Union was built on the ashes of two world wars and the worst genocide the world has ever seen. These terrors bred a generation of pro-integration leaders across Europe with a broadly similar vision. This helped the EU develop step by step from a modest industrial regulatory body to integration so deep that it challenges the traditional divide of statehood and international organization. With each step, the EU benefitted increasingly from the broad geopolitical alignment of its member states, at first specifically against the Soviet allied states to the East, and later against economic uncertainty in general. No other regional organization has had such strong ideological consensus, strategic alignment, and initial sense of urgency to achieve integration.

The African Union’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) - faced three threats that provided impetus for integration when it was established in 1963: colonialism, armed conflict, and slow development. However, just as the disastrous consequences of nationalism led Europe to roll back unconditional state sovereignty, the suffering of colonialism – and lack of sovereignty – led African leaders to value their unconditional rights to territorial integrity and noninterference above all else. Fundamental differences in opinion on development, deep geopolitical rifts, and a lesser necessity to integrate all contributed to an association far more loose than that of the EU.

Rather than being a sign of failure, this looser organization simply highlights the unique historical trajectory of the African continent in the 20th Century, where peace and security has been the priority over economics. Indeed, the initial urgent cause for the OAC was driving out European colonialism, where, of course, it ultimately succeeded.

Credit: African Union

Credit: African Union

Moving to the present, Africa, unlike Europe, is still plagued by intrastate conflict of many kinds. Hence, the AU still holds peace and security as a leading focus, where it is notable for its successes and the bravery with which it treads new ground in its aim of securing peace. In this respect it is far closer to the UN than the EU or any other economics-driven organization.

Ultimately though, it was also the prevalence of intrastate conflict that challenged the OAU’s dedication to noninterference. Mass atrocities were common in civil wars and insurgencies, so that African states gradually came to see the need for stronger checks on each other, and particularly to be able to engage in humanitarian intervention. This was the major reason for the shift from the OAU to the AU, which officially came into being in 2002.

The Constitutive Act of the African Union became first treaty to enshrine humanitarian intervention as a foundational principle: Article 4(h) enshrines “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” This normative shift was expanded upon and further codified in the Protocol (an amendment or addition to a treaty) establishing a “Peace and Security Council” (PSC) in 2003 and in a 2004 Declaration on Common African Defense and Security Policy.

The PSC Protocol established the council much like a regional version of the UN Security Council: it would be made up of 15 AU member states serving two or three year terms and have the power to enforce decisions of the Organization related to peace and security. The Protocol further detailed four other bodies that would comprise the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) along with the PSC: A Continental Early Warning System, a Panel of the Wise, a Special Fund, and an African Standby Force.

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The Continental Early Warning System would focus on prevention of conflicts by monitoring developments from a “Situation Room” and a network of regional units. The Panel of the Wise would be made up of high-level dignitaries and tasked with mediation and preventative diplomacy where a need was identified. A Peace Fund was established to finance peace operations across the response spectrum, and to date it is largely funded by voluntary contributions from European states. The Standby Force was an idea that the UN had once attempted to implement itself and then abandoned, and so its operation is of particular interest to the international community.

Considered together, the architecture was an ambitious and groundbreaking framework for peace in the continent that so desperately needed it. Therefore, the African Union should be seen less for its lack of economic integration as compared to the EU, and more for its significant achievements in the arena where it was needed most.

Next week, we go over the application of this policy since its entry into force and the future of the African Peace and Security Architecture, especially as the UN-AU partnership deepens.