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Can Stronger Regional Partnerships Help The UN Promote Global Stability

Dr Rajeesh Kumar is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 04, 2016

    The recent United Nations Security Council meeting on cooperation between the UN and regional organizations in preserving international peace and security underlined the urgency of a collective response through regional and global partnerships. At the meeting, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the UN is working to strengthen collaboration with regional organizations in line with Charter provisions relating to regional arrangements. He also observed that ‘in that way, we can make the most of our respective strengths.’ Though no one questions the promise of such partnerships, there are many impediments in practically achieving it as is evident from past partnership missions of the UN.

    The UN Charter preserves the rights of Member States to form regional arrangements for dealing with peace and security issues, and the primary role of such agencies is stated in Chapter VIII of the Charter. The Charter asks members of the UN to make efforts to achieve the pacific settlement of local disputes through regional arrangements before referring them to the Security Council. This confirms the fact that the UN does not have a monopoly on the issues of peace and security. Nonetheless, the Charter prohibits enforcement actions by regional organizations without prior authorization from the Security Council. Though the provisions that recognize the responsibility of regional organizations are present in the Charter, throughout the Cold War period the UN showed limited interest in making use of these regional arrangements to maintain international peace and security. The Cold War power politics and consequent stalemate in the Security Council were the major challenges in this period.

    After the end of the Cold War, it was the unwillingness of Western member states and the failure of the UN to respond promptly to humanitarian emergencies that led to a rethink about regional organizations playing a role in preventing conflicts and maintaining peace and security. Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan stand as examples in this regard. These failures and reluctance also fetched many criticisms over the irresponsible approach of the UN towards the many instances of genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa. Together, these factors compelled the international community to search for a more realistic way to address conflicts and restore international peace and stability.

    Further, at the regional level as well, the environment became more conducive to develop regional partnerships. The possibility of the contagious effect of regional conflicts and consequently lesser reluctance among regional countries to play a role as well as their greater knowledge about these conflicts increased the potentials and promises of regional partnerships. For many post-colonial states, national security was also linked to regional security. Finally, the functionalist logic of seeing regional integration as an engine to promote peace also contributed to this development.

    Africa was the first test ground for this regional partnership for peace. The cry for ‘African solutions to African problems’ was the primary stimulus. It was the UN’s realization of its incapability in finding durable solutions to conflicts in Africa which resulted in many resolutions and agreements related to regional partnerships. The agreement with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1965, and the General Assembly and Security Council resolutions such as 43/12(1988), 48/25(1993), 50/158 (1995), S/RES/2167 and S/RES/2033 are some of the documents that later became the source of the UN’s regional partnership in Africa.1 Subsequently, the United Nations signed similar agreements with many other regional and sub-regional organizations, such as the European Union (EU), Organization of African States (OAS), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), etc. In practice, however, the record of collaboration between the UN and regional organizations has not measured up to the promises originally framed in these documents. Failure of coordination in the field, the interests of dominant regional powers, lack of top level political contacts, and institutional differences among regional partners have been some of the significant challenges in this regard.

    The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) is a good example of in terms of highlighting the problems associated with regional partnerships in peace. UNAMID was the first ever hybrid peacekeeping mission and the most expensive endeavour ever undertaken by the UN. The mission was authorized by Security Council resolution 1769 in 2007, and it proposed political, financial, logistical and military burden sharing between the UN and AU. Currently, with 20,616 peacekeepers and an annual budget of USD 1.39 billion, UNAMID is the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. The core mandate of the mission is the protection of civilians.

    As the above facts show, the expectation was rather high when UNAMID was established. However, the discrepancies between the mandate of UNAMID and its operational abilities ensured that the regional partnership became a failure. The alleged mass rape of 221 women by the Sudanese Army in 2014 and the lukewarm response from UNAMID exposed the inability of the mission to perform its primary mandate of protecting civilians. Despite the presence of peacekeepers, more than 3,000 villages in Darfur were burnt by the Sudanese Armed Forces in 2014 alone. However, no concrete action was taken by UNAMID in protecting civilians at the time of these incidents. The mission also failed to provide security for the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs).

    It is the structural weakness that has been the primary reason for the failure of UNAMID in performing its core mandate, which is that of protecting civilians. The mission was an outcome of a compromise between the United Nations and the African Union. The UN Security Council viewed the partnership as a tool for securing access to the conflict zones in Darfur and as a way to get troops from African countries for the mission. Lack of sufficient funds and logistics were the two major factors that enfeebled almost all peacekeeping missions of the AU in the region. Therefore, the AU’s interest in the partnership stemmed from the huge resources at the disposal of the UN. This resulted in an asymmetric and overlapping mission in Darfur which eventually could never act promptly and appropriately.

    Like UNAMID, many other regional partnership missions of the UN can also be characterised as failures. Certainly, regional and sub-regional organizations with greater local knowledge and local personnel can contribute much towards resolving conflicts and making peace. But the regional partnership for peace idea could never get translated into praxis. To bring this vision into practice, some critical issues with existing partnerships need to be fixed. Firstly, there should be a change in the mind-set of both the international and regional communities in viewing each other as partners only because there are ‘no other options.' Most of the regional partnerships of the UN were the outcomes of compulsion, and the actors themselves were suspicious about the competence of the partnership. Secondly, it is necessary to rectify the inferior/superior attitudes among the partner institutions. Regional organizations are definitely diverse and they vary much in their capacities, and, therefore, the partners must respect each other. More innovative and flexible partnership agreements that draw on the strengths of the respective organizations and an overt definition of ‘comparative advantages’ of the organizations involved could be helpful in addressing these two issues. The third issue is regarding the lack of coordination at the operational level. This can be resolved by establishing institutional incentives and coordination objectives. Finally and most importantly, it is necessary to analyse and understand the political interest of regional powers before forging a regional partnership. In the final analysis, these are highly complex issues and not easily resolvable. Consequently, regional partnerships are likely to have limited utility in promoting peace and stability.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. The issue of cooperation between the UN and AU was first considered in the twentieth session of the General Assembly in September 1965. Then, OAU signed a cooperation agreement with the UN on 15 November 1965. The GA and SC resolutions 43/12(1988), 48/25(1993), 50/158 (1995), S/RES/2167 and S/RES/2033 emphasized the need of cooperation between the UN and regional and sub-regional organizations in Africa.